NEW YORK – Military trainees may find they have something in common with hamsters if a new invention is approved for use.
The giant VirtuSphere — which looks like a larger version of the little exercise balls that fluffy pet rodents scurry around in — is only one of the military gadgets the Office of Naval Research is displaying at the annual Fleet Week in New York Harbor.
Because aspiring seamen, Marines or soldiers can move around in the 10-foot-high hamster balls and see a simulated war zone through virtual reality glasses, inventor Ray Latypov says the training experience more closely resembles what a serviceman would have to deal with when he's actually in the field.
"It's more useful than training with a joystick and a keyboard," Latypov said. "They do it in real space."
Getting used to walking or sprinting in the huge black ball without toppling over takes some practice. This reporter was shaky on her feet in the VirtuSphere, though she made it through a short exercise without falling.
Latypov, who created the concept with his brother Nurulla Latypov, maneuvers it like a pro.
ONR didn't have the funding this year to show off its new technologies in its Afloat Lab aboard the Star Fish, as it usually does. Instead, the prototypes are viewable on the USS Kearsarge.
Also on display: a supersonic cruise-missile demonstrator called RATTLRS, whose technology was created by Lockheed Martin and Rolls-Royce. A turbine engine drives the missile to speeds faster than three times the speed of sound, or over Mach 3.
"The real secret sauce is the engine, which is smaller and more efficient," said Lawrence Ash, RATTLRS program manager for ONR.
An old favorite is back in New York for viewing this year, a 5-foot-long sleek unmanned airplane called the Silver Fox. It carries camera equipment and shoots photos and video so soldiers can get a sneak peek at a dangerous site or situation before putting themselves in harm's way.
Though its technology hasn't been upgraded since last year and it is currently in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, the $50,000 Silver Fox is soon going to be used to patrol the U.S./Mexican border.
A ground-mounted lightweight mortar system is also among the contraptions in the ONR display. It's not only 30 percent less heavy than previous models, but about half as expensive, cutting the cost from $90,000 to $40,000, said Michael George, a mechanical engineer with the U.S. Army Research Development Center involved in developing the system.
"It optimizes performance and cost savings," he said.
Now that the war in Iraq has entered its fourth year and there is still fighting in Afghanistan, the military is financially strapped. That's why saving money is "one of the big drivers" in designing new technologies for combat, according to George.
Back again this year are the portable translation devices by SpeechGear in the Compadre line, which translate written and verbal speech from one language to another and have added the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. The company has come out with another program called Restore, which will repair damaged pages of text and translate them.
LightSpeed is a communication device attached to handheld binoculars that enables people to see, speak to each other and transmit data across distances of five kilometers or more. Those who use LightSpeed have to wear a headset and talk into an attached microphone while they peer into the binoculars.
Not only is LightSpeed useful in war, it can also come in handy in domestic disaster situations, said Leo Wolfson of Torrey Pines Logic, which makes the device.
"The classic example is Katrina," he said. "All communication went down."
Fleet Week activities run through Tuesday.