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A Military Contractor Just Went Ahead And Used an Xbox Controller For Their New Giant Laser Cannon

The army’s new laser cannon is controlled with an Xbox controller

Pew pew (Oliver Berg/dpa/Corbis)
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Meet one of the U.S. Army's newest toys: the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator. It's “basically a high-energy laser mounted on top of a big truck,” says Wired. It has an unusual feature, though: the laser cannon is controlled with an Xbox video game controller.

Boeing, which designed this machine, opted for an Xbox controller to guide the weapon because of “soldiers' assumed familiarity with the Xbox controller,” says Evan Narcisse for Kotaku. Using off-the-shelf rather than custom parts can be good design—there's no need to reinvent the wheel, after all—and can lead to a product that's instantly more familiar to both engineers and users. 

According to a Boeing representative, the controller is “something that [the soldier] doesn't have to go to school to learn... that he knows how to use instinctively." Like a realistic high-tech video game, soldiers will use their dual-stick skills to shoot down everything from drones to mortar rounds.

Here's Boeing's demo video:

The military's long been entwined with video game technology, as the Atlantic wrote last year

Spacewar!, the title historians consider the first video game, was developed by graduate students at MIT who were funded by the Pentagon....Later, the original first-person perspectives of 1980’s Battlezone and its successor, 1993’s Doom, showed the potential for 3-D piloting, multiplayer networking, and virtual reality-based training. Through commercial gaming technology, the armed forces could adapt soldiers to the tactics of team fighting and trigger-fast decision making, or conjure tailor-made battle environments for them. The arrangement has synergy: The Pentagon avoids pitiful, expensive efforts to create their own training simulators, and developers get fat government checks. 

As Kotaku notes, this isn't the first time video game controllers, and presumably gamers' skills, have been co-opted for lethal uses. When Syrian rebels hacked together a tank a few years ago, they opted for a Playstation controller to guide their machine gun. There's increasingly little distance between war games and actual war, in which drone pilots describe their jobs as "a lot like playing a video game." ​

"With this new development," says Kotaku's Narcisse, "one could imagine conflicts where a 360 controller-steered laser will be shooting down drones piloted by the same input device. It's worth mentioning that the parallels between real-life war and playable fiction have been a source of controversy before. New weapon-centric uses of console controllers as with the HEL MD probably won't do anything to change that."

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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