This submarine part comes from video game store

The high-resolution cameras on the Navy's future attack submarines will be operated by an Xbox controller traditionally used by video gamers.

Photonics masts, which replaced the traditional periscopes often seen in submarine movies and news reports, can extend and offer 360-degree views of the surface that are then displayed on television monitors in the control room — all controlled by a joystick.

But not for long.

After two years of extensive testing, the Xbox controllers will supplant joysticks starting with the future submarine Colorado, which is slated for commissioning this fall. The idea came out of a seminar to solicit input from the next generation of submariners on what technologies they'd like to see implemented.

"The Navy is looking at, long-term, what is the next generation of sailors comfortable with? They're comfortable with touch screens, and they're comfortable with virtual environments, and that's what they're looking to go into," said Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub, the assistant navigator on the USS John Warner, one of the Navy's newest Virginia-class submarines which will be retrofitted with the Xbox controller.

Use of the controller is part of an overall Navy effort to leverage commercial off-the-shelf technology to minimize costs and improve warfighting capabilities. The controllers are a much cheaper alternative to joysticks and won't require as much training, given their familiarity among younger sailors who grew up in the digital era.

The controllers also are easy to hook up and replace compared to the joysticks, which were only designed to fit on a Virginia-class submarine, Eichenlaub noted.

"I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world," he said.

The USS Virginia was the first submarine to incorporate the new photonics mast, which can be raised and lowered from the sail. That allowed the control room to be moved to where it makes sense, as opposed to right below the sail, where the periscope entered the hull.

Information is digitally recorded by cameras in the mast, transmitted through fiber optics into the ship and processed with onboard image processors. Each photonics mast has an HDTV digital color camera, an infrared camera and a laser rangefinder.

j.bergman@theday.com

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