Colossal Computing Power, Itty Bitty Storage Space

March 2009
By Rita Boland

The wearable supercomputer has the computing power of six to 12 standard desktop computers, but is less than six inches long and weighs one pound.
High-power hardware is part of a bigger effort to take capabilities usually stored in entire buildings and condense them into a suitcase.

It’s a paperback! It’s a belt buckle! No, it’s a supercomputer! It’s a wearable supercomputer, actually, and it can clip onto a belt so users can take it anywhere they need to go. The product is part of a larger project designed to deliver the capabilities of a simulation center to warfighters instead of requiring them to travel to special facilities. If all goes according to plan, service members can expect the powerful new hardware as well as software and applications to transform their training when they receive the technology. And even if the plan goes awry, the open-source basis for the simulation still could benefit the military.

MNB Technologies is developing the wearable supercomputer as part of the Simulation Center in a Box Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, though before the company received that award, it already was working on the concept using its own capital. The supercomputers will have the raw computing performance of six to 12 normal desktop computers and are as powerful as what national laboratories had in place a decade ago. Each of these computers can facilitate applications that normally would run on a small cluster. When multiple units come within wireless range of each other, the capability of the group increases as the individual units share resources. The systems automatically collaborate so teammates working on different parts of the same project can perform their individual tasks but work in parallel.

These capabilities all are contained in a 1-pound, 1-inch thick (including battery pack) host device—one of two major components of the supercomputer—that is 3.5 inches wide and 5.5 inches long. “That’s it. That’s the whole machine,” says Nick Granny, chairman and chief technology officer (CTO) of MNB Technologies. The device is about the size of a standard paperback book and can be clipped to a belt. In the original configuration, the computer can run on its battery for three hours. With the addition of a 0.25-inch-thicker battery, run time can be extended to six hours. However, Granny explains that most of the time the supercomputers will run on alternating current power. The host has a 1.6-gigahertz central processing unit, 1-gigabyte random access memory, wireless and wired Ethernet, universal serial bus, video graphics array, audio and high-definition multimedia interface ports.

The computer has a 5-inch display and a built-in keyboard that personnel work with their thumbs. If users need a bigger screen, they can employ a head-mounted display or flip-down visors. When using the head-mounted display, users experience definition equivalent to a 54-inch monitor at a distance of six feet. Granny says users employ a display to match their applications. According to him, the device is basically a Windows computer with “a lot of extra power.”

The accelerator module is the second major component of the wearable supercomputer and is predictably tiny—not much bigger than a pack of gum, in fact. The express card package is 1.3 inches wide, 2.1 inches long and 0.4 inches thick. The accelerator is a PCIe module embedded inside the host. It contains a field-programmable gate array, an embedded 500-megahertz Power PC 440 processor and 256 megabytes of random access memory as well as 64 megabytes of flash memory and 74,000 programmable logic cells. “That’s where the power comes from,” Granny explains. Besides extra processing and memory, the programmable logic cells become  the algorithm. In this approach, the machine adapts itself to become the algorithm.

MNB Technologies has turned the express card in the computer into a dedicated image processor or matrix multiplier or whatever else customers need, requiring only a few milliseconds to completely change how it is programmed. If users’ main applications require different algorithms, the wearable supercomputer loads up the algorithms thousands of times faster than a regular computer. It continues this process for new needs. When groups of the devices work together, the power increases exponentially, not linearly. They act in concert to offer more performance than the sum of their individual capabilities.

MNB Technologies creates its wearable supercomputer using heavily modified commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. An outside company manufactures the wearable platform, and MNB adds its accelerator, which also is a COTS product adjusted for the company’s purposes. By tying all the existing pieces together, MNB Technologies creates a cost-effective platform. “I could sell these all for $5,000 and make a profit,” Granny says. In a few years, he anticipates being able to reduce that price to $2,500 to $3,000 because components will become more affordable.

The wearable supercomputer has applications beyond the military for activities such as trucking, agriculture, land management and disaster relief. The hardware is ready, and depending on the application that must be ported to the device, the team can write an accelerated routine in a few weeks to a few months. Routines are kept in the library for future use. The company shipped one prototype to its partner company, Cole Engineering Services Incorporated, for the Simulation Center in a Box proof of concept.

Cole Engineering Services, rather than MNB Technologies, is the company mainly responsible for the development of the Simulation Center in a Box. MNB Technologies is working with Cole to provide the wearable supercomputer as part of the hardware. Another company, Stackframe LLC, received a SBIR Phase 1 contract for the project as well, and that company also is interacting with Cole Engineering as the two private entities strive to create this new system.

To optimize it for simulation and modeling functions, the wearable supercomputer has stereo sound with peripherals hooked to it. In addition, a vest with pneumatic actuators simulates a thump when soldiers are hit with lasers in their scenarios. “It obviously doesn’t do any damage, but it teaches you a lesson,” Granny says. 

The Simulation Center in a Box is based on One Semi-Automated Forces technology (example shown here). Part of the project is a wearable supercomputer that is the size of an average paperback book.
MNB Technologies’ involvement with the Simulation Center in a Box SBIR program resulted from advice given by a U.S. Army official, who suggested that the company collaborate with Cole Engineering Services, which was working on the project. Though the SBIR is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) topic in the 2007 solicitations, an agency official emphasizes that it is not a DARPA program, “it’s a SBIR project.” As such, DARPA declines to comment on the effort, beyond confirming that Cole Engineering Services and Stackframe LLC have contracts for Phase 1 of Simulation Center in a Box.

The wearable supercomputer fills a need in the project because it can incorporate a capable user interface into a small package. With the devices, users can take advantage of a full-size interface display with a package they can hold in one hand. While a final configuration has yet to be determined, the current set-up of the Simulation Center in a Box includes two high-end laptops, six wearable supercomputers, a small projector and a network switch, either wireless or physical. To fulfill the request for proposal (RFP) requirements, the Simulation Center in a Box must be self-powered for an hour. The RFP also calls for the ability to plug the box in to charge all the components. “That’s going to be an interesting electrical challenge,” John Stevens, CTO of Cole Engineering Services, says. He adds that Stackhouse is concentrating more on that issue.

The concept behind the Simulation Center in a Box is to take work normally done at the few Army simulation centers and instead bring it to battalion staff at more convenient locations. The effort is geared toward the battalion staff of about 33 people so they require less time away from their home station or other locations, but still can obtain the necessary training. All the equipment is designed to fit into a “box” the size of a carry-on flight bag.

The original RFP for the project specified that it would be used by an Army maneuver battalion with a goal of one person grabbing the box, boarding an airplane with it and setting it up ready to train battalion staff within an hour of arriving at the destination. Stevens says with the appropriate programming, the simulations could apply to any staff. The ultimate goal is to enable the simulations to replicate any actions an actual maneuver battalion can do, but he explains that even if the project is at an 80-percent level by the time of production, it will be very useful.

One of the biggest challenges for Stevens and his team is simulating enough entities and actions to replace the personnel in the white cells at simulation centers. These personnel act as role players and translate orders into the simulation system. To overcome that issue, Cole Engineering has built goal-oriented behavior into the system. Generally, simulation software is built around task-oriented behavior.

Using the goal orientation programming, the simulation takes whatever assets are available to control an objective. How the participants meet that objective is up to them. That sort of effort normally is done by humans simulating messages passed over radio networks or digital messages but now can be done by computer. Cole Engineering built one behavior that encompassed everything in itself without requiring an actor to perform the action. Work on this will continue in Phase 2 of the SBIR project. Other research work involves studying user interfaces on handheld devices and connecting real command and control systems into the simulation system so no new equipment is needed.

The Simulation Center in a Box is based on One Semi-Automated Forces (OneSAF) simulation. OneSAF is a next-generation, entity-level simulation that supports computer-generated forces and semi-automated forces. It is handled by the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation. The program is unique in its open-source approach to data sharing. Stevens shares that without that level of software already available and OneSAF’s open-source model, the creation of this SBIR project would be much more difficult and potentially impossible.

Officials at OneSAF are excited about the project and will reap benefits even if the project never reaches full production. Currently, according to Lt. Col. Rob Rasch, USA, product manager for OneSAF, this type of technology development enables OneSAF to expand its reach and become a bigger part of providing solution to the soldiers. It also validates the group’s open-source business model. Because DARPA acted as a sponsor for Cole Engineering, OneSAF was able to release its code to the private company. 

Though Col. Rasch believes the Simulation Center in a Box will be valuable if it pans out, what he focuses on is the potential for him to receive capabilities back that he can integrate into the OneSAF baseline and release to the user community. He especially is excited about the goal-oriented behavior layer of artificial intelligence being built into the system. As Cole Engineering hands the code to him, Col. Rasch will distribute it back to the Army, making the project a win for the service even if it never reaches full fruition. He hopes to see his first code back to benefit the Army when the SBIR project is funded for Phase 2.

Cole Engineering recently finished Phase 1 and received some more money to work on additional pieces. The company is preparing for Phase 2, which it hopes to begin in April. SBIR Phase 2s generally run 12 to 18 months and result in a working prototype at the end. If that is successful, Phase 3 will mark the beginning of larger production.

In addition to the federal funding, MNB Technologies also is receiving funding for the wearable supercomputer through the state of Indiana’s 21st Century Fund. Part of that program offers matching grants for SBIR Phase 1 awards, as well as additional funding  for later phase awards.

Web Resources
MNB Technologies Wearable Supercomputer:
Cole Engineering Services Incorporated:
One Semi-Automated Forces:
21st Century Fund:


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