Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 11 (November 2001)

Anti-Terror Technologies

Psychologists tell us that after horrific events, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, people tend to react initially with shock, fear, confusion, sadness, and anger, but then they want to take some kind of action. This urge to do something may result from a desire for revenge, but it also stems from a need people have to regain control of a situation, and to do so in the most effective way possible, using whatever special expertise they can bring to bear. This was certainly true for me. And if the response to our reader survey—about how computer graphics technologies can be used to stop terrorism—is any indication, it was also true for many others in the computer graphics community, though I’m sure pure altruism and patriotism on the part of the respondents were major factors as well.

The response was impressive. Some 70 respondents offered innovative ideas for employing computer graphics tools and techniques in a host of applications, ranging from improving airline safety and enhancing emergency-response training to employing counter-terrorist measures and raising consciousness about the precursors and aftermath of terrorism.

To see the full text of the responses, log onto our Web site at, then go to the Web Exclusives section and select Surveys. You'll find all the messages we received, minus a few ingenious ideas, which we decided not to publish but to forward with all the rest to our contact at the US Department of Defense. What follows is an edited sample of the comments:

  • Here at the space center, we build 3D virtual environments that allow engineers to visualize in real time items ranging from space-station equipment to facilities where operations take place. One suggestion is to develop traffic-control data into a viewable 3D virtual environment, with overlaid flight data. Merge this with geopolitical-infrastructure information and 3D physical feature data. Build soft envelopes around physical features (such as buildings, arenas, towers, and bridges) as well as abstract features (such as flight corridors and restricted air space). Then develop software that can compare flight data with these features, detect anomalies in flight behavior, and automatically signal an alert. -Danny Fogle, Boeing
  • At the ramp, immediately before boarding the plane, every passenger and crew member would have his or her photo taken or hand scanned. If there were any matches of these images with those in a database of known or suspected terrorists, the plane wouldn't take off. At major points of entry between the US and Canada, the Im-migration and Naturalization Service has already implemented something similar with its PortPass system. For this, you fill out some forms, show your passport and other documentation, have your hand scanned, and get a PortPass card with your picture on it. When you travel, you insert your PortPass card into a station, which confirms your flight, and you place your hand on a scanner and image-recognition system. If there are no matches, you proceed. Over time, this database could be built up to cover a very high percentage of travelers, and in the worst case, there would be a detailed record of exactly who was on any given flight. -Kevin Tureski, Alias|Wavefront
  • Each plane could have a unique electronic ID and pass code that would be monitored via satellite and ground-tracking methods. Each pilot would enter the plane's password-protected ID before each flight with the departure and arrival information. Each terminal would be able to confirm each flight plan, and the system would track the filed flight plan. The central database would provide an early-warning system that recognizes when a plane has diverted from its intended plan. If the flight path is changed, intentionally or not, the computer would initiate an appropriate warning. Automatic responses would be set up to alert the pilot, who would be required to send the appropriate ID and pass code information and explain the reason for the deviation to the tower. If the deviation continued, an alert would go into effect, and fighter jets would be would scrambled for interception, if needed. -David Toy, Nia Creative

  • We have developed a new imaging technique that greatly enhances the surface detail of objects. We have worked with archeologists to apply this to examining cuneiform tablets. In fact, we uncovered a fingerprint on one of the tablets that was left by a scribe who originally wrote the tablet 4000 years ago. Obviously, this technology could be used in forensics, and we are currently working with the San Fran cisco police department to find applications for it. -Tom Malzbender, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories
  • For years, technology has been available to use photographs of real objects to create virtual 3D models. The greater the number of photographs, the greater the detail and accuracy of the final model. I can't help but wonder if all the video footage we've seen in the news of the World Trade Center disaster could be mapped into a computer model of the event. If this were possible, it might allow viewing from previously unseen, unrecorded angles, to provide closer, more telling views of it. This virtual model of the event might provide a level of detail and an ability to analyze it in ways that are otherwise impossible. It might be used to give structural engineers a greater understanding of how and why the buildings collapsed. It might help investigators locate specific objects in the resulting pile of rubble more quickly. Or it may allow them to look for and see things that we wouldn't even think about.
    -George G. Rodgers, AFG Industries

  • One area our industry can help in is training. I recently worked with instructors at a pilot-training center on a video showing emergency procedures for dealing with hazardous materials. All the information is available to the pilots in their manuals, but there is no substitute for a visual simulation. Emergency-response teams can get realistic experience with any worst-case terrorist scenario with good computer visualizations. All the destructive energy that goes into creating violent video games could be put to constructive use in developing virtual-reality programs.
    -Judy Gardner, Gardner Animation
  • Many would agree that desktop 3D and immersive virtual-reality software can be used to enable realistic rehearsals of potential encounters and situations. These can become effective training exercises if the software includes virtual mentors, that is, digital characters that provide guided suggestions based on the collected knowledge and intuition of human experts. One challenge is to make this technology af fordable and to remove the requirements for custom art and animation. The tools used to author immersive-training software are targeted at programmers and technical artists. But it is not necessary to create the level of realism achieved, for example, in the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. We need simple tools for art directors and producers. We also need to use royalty-free licensed models, employ physics-based character animation to reduce the amount of custom animation required, and reuse the same characters, vehicles, and equipment models in different applications.
    - Graham Rhodes, Applied Research Associates
  • As a 3D animator for a major flight-simulation company, I can tell you we are involved in developing real-time scenes for training military pilots. While our commercial aircraft-training sites provide our own flight instructors, some training facilities allow student pilots to bring their own instructors. One suggestion is to have the simulation software monitor the actions of the training session, and if illegal acts (such as flying into buildings) are performed, the necessary authorities could be notified. -Rich Lacy
  • If VR environments of public buildings could be built, the data would be available to give police, firefighters, rescue workers, and hazardous-materials teams knowledge about the best way to enter a dangerous situation. Systems based on these could provide both training and diagnostic tools. One such tool could allow hazardous-materials teams to simulate the dispersion of a biochemical agent over a city and visualize the effects of weather in real time. An example of this is the Lawrence Livermore National Lab visualization system used after the Chernobyl disaster to track the radioactive cloud around the world. -Anonymous

  • Since the terrorists use our technology, I think the programmers in the US could get together and create programs that sniff email, computer systems, cellular phones, and bank accounts for terrorist plans, then disable them with viruses and worms, and basically make their lives and plans impossible. -Thomas Morrissey
  • There are those in the development community that could help our government track, trace, and possibly capture much of the flow of information between operatives. We hear every day of viruses that are being created to shut down corporations. Why couldn't this energy be put to use in this situation? I realize that many of the individuals that write viruses are "mavericks." But I think that everyone in the software business needs to band together to prevent the recent events from occurring again. -Terry Krebs
  • The high-end fx community could be put to use in creating "disinformation" aimed at our enemies. Using digital technology in this way is an idea that I first became aware of in a novel by Caleb Carr entitled Killing Time, in which a band of righteous scholars take it upon themselves to digitally alter and manufacture information in order to keep balance in the world. -Andrew Deal, AFD Creative

  • Computer graphics tools and techniques can be effective in improving and accelerating the military decision-making pro cess, which involves four steps: observation, orientation, de cision, and action. In observation, GPS data-collection systems can greatly im prove our ability to locate and utilize geographic information with great precision. In orientation, large-scale displays-such as video walls and reality cen ters-can play an important role in creating a big picture for group understanding of where targets are, what is around them, and how to get to them. In decision-making, videoconferencing and simulation techniques can enable teamwork and coordination with forces and allies in far-flung geographic locations. Action can be monitored by computer graphics in real time, and instant feedback can be provided to commanders on how plans are proceeding. Finally, computer graphics also plays a vital role in mission rehearsal, during which pilots, tank drivers, and ship handlers can rehearse and evaluate a plan in a virtual environment with human-in-the-loop response, and see photorealistic terrain and environments to help ensure first-time success.
    -Francis X. Govers III, SGI
  • The FAA, local police, as well as our rail, trucking, vehicle-rental, and vehicle-safety agencies, all need to get tied to a global tracking network. Look at Intergraph's suite of geographic information systems and mapping products tied to Oracle's graphics object-oriented database with US Customs and allies tracking travelers as dynamic objects on a world grid. Objects have attributes that can tie to security database flags. The programs are there, and these two companies have a long history of service to intelligence operations around the world.
    -Lloyd Philpo't, Philpo Design

  • Computer graphic artists are well known for being able to alter reality. How about if we were to take all the photos of known or suspected terrorists and use computer graphics to alter their appearances in as many believable ways as possible. These altered images could help to serve in tracking down and identifying terrorists. -Craig Ehrman, Gensia Sicor
  • A single look at the video from any security camera shows clearly that the ONLY thing clear in those pictures is the immediate need for on-the-fly video compression in that industry, so that law enforcement gets usable information. Otherwise, these cameras are little better than the fake ones some businesses use. -William M. Bennett, The Bennett Group

  • The first thing that I think of is contingency planning in architecture. We already model projects the size of the World Trade Center. The architect should be able to subject a virtual building to any attack. Name a credible threat. Can the building withstand it per code? Name an incredible threat. How will the building perform even then. -Christopher Church

  • I think computer graphics can help prevent terrorism by not letting people forget what happened in NYC. One way to do this would be to rebuild the World Trade Center twin towers virtually and put inside every person who died, exactly where they use to work. -Stefano De Troia, Italy
  • Within our professional realm, we should refuse to design or execute work that condones random violence and racism. Such images can lead to a naive and indiscriminate view of other people and cultures. We should research how to make peaceful interaction into best-selling games and animations. How can we ever, after September 11, blow up virtual buildings and people and call that entertaining? -Mechthild Schmidt, House-Works Digital Media
  • Computer graphics in conjunction with the Internet can be used as a new tool to promote human understanding and cooperation. The Internet was built from the ground up with the goal of connecting people and allowing them to share information. It excels at this like no other technology. Computer graphics allow people to share their thoughts in exacting clarity. It excels at this like no other technology. If we marry the two, humankind has a means of understanding such as we have never known before. The ultimate deterrent to terrorism lies in understanding. This proposed use of technology to promote understanding is no different from our use of technology to solve any other problem. This is our new and universal challenge. How vital is it that we all understand each other? Is there really any other goal that is more important? -John Price, Net3D Productions

It's clear that technologies and applications such as those proposed here will be critical in overcoming terrorism in the months and years ahead. Indeed, no matter what actions the US and our allies continue to take, to be successful, we must rely on our intellectual power-not just our military might-more than we have ever had to do before in conflicts of this nature. And while improving the acquisition and use of military intelligence will be key, making greater use of another product of our intellect-advanced technology-will also help us gain the upper hand.

Thanks to all who responded to our survey. If you would like to comment further, please feel free to send ideas to the Director of the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, Maryland, or send them to me, and I will make sure they get into the hands of the appropriate law enforcement and intelligence officials.