This Pentagon Project Makes Cyberwar as Easy as Angry Birds

Dan Roelker hired some veterans of the gaming industry to start the process of imagining how that World of Cyber Warcraft might work. Together, the team started reaching out in the spring and summer of 2012 to some of Silicon Valley’s best-known design shops, game developers, and special effects houses and asking them if they wanted to take a stab at building a mock-up of a graphical user interface for network battle.

The companies came up with all sorts of ways to connect with the data. Some went with a Google Glass-style wearable computer. Others with a virtual reality headset. (Keyboards and mice were specifically not allowed.) One even tried to direct cyberattacks by waving your arms, and having an Xbox 360 Kinect interpret the motions. ”It sounds cool. It actually sucked,” Roelker says. “Interesting idea, but it was very non-functional.”

Instead, the Darpa crew turned to the legendary Frog Design. In the 1980s, the firm helped come up with iconic products like the Sony Walkman and the Apple IIc. Today, Frog helps huge companies like General Electric visualize their titanic data sets.  Nick de la Mare, Frog’s executive creative director, thought of Plan X as a similar project: take a tiny chunk of the Internet; plot out how packets move from one node to another; and then make that map so easy to navigate, even a white-haired general could do it. “We didn’t approach it as a cyberwarfare program at all,” del la Mare says. “We approached it as a mapping project.”

Six weeks later, Frog had something of a prototype for the interface. It relied on a Samsung SUR40 Touch Table –  a kind of 40-inch, multi-person iPad. Using tones of midnight and baby blue, it charted out network topologies like constellations of stars. Except these constellations you could examine from every direction, and zoom right up to the nearest sun.

Frog and Roelker showed it off on October 15th and 16th, 2012 at a two day seminar held at Darpa’s curved glass headquarters in suburban Virginia. The morning sessions were open, and the afternoons were classified. Industry, military, academic researchers interested in building out Plan X flocked to the session — and walked away impressed. Further demonstrations followed to Capitol Hill staffers and at the Pentagon. The non-technical audiences were even more enthusiastic. Suddenly, they could see how network battle might not just belong to the geeks. It was something they could one day pull off, too. And for a Washington crowd feeling somewhat helpless before what they saw as an online menace, that was a very soothing thought. As one person who took part in the demonstrations told me: ”It’s like crack for generals.”