Sunday, August 14, 2011

Not just for soldiers - Idex is a playground for gadget geeks

The following first appeared in The National on February 24, 2011

There were, unfortunately, no shopping carts outside the entrance to the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, which is a shame really, because it was love at first sight. The IST 14.5 anti-material rifle at the Azerbaijan booth is a thing of beauty.

It was its size that first caught my eye. At 2.25 metres, it was 30 centimetres longer than I am tall. There's an appeal to owning a firearm that's bigger than you, especially one that can put a 50-calibre round through the side of an armoured car 2,000 metres away.

The staff, however, paid me no mind. The steely woman at the display, who bore a rather strong resemblance to the James Bond villain Rosa Klebb, sniffed at me when I asked about price. I half expected her to come at me with a poisoned spike in her sensible shoes. Perhaps I lacked the appropriate demeanour and import certificates to justify her attention. An elderly gentleman in a seersucker suit and a 10-gallon hat, however, earned her undivided attention.

Idex, as the exhibition is known, is the biggest of its kind in the region. Plenty of coin changes hands as governments choose to sign major contracts with manufacturers from all over the world. But the majority of the folks, myself included, were simply there to play with the displays. In this respect, Idex is the county fair of international arms shows.

Casual visitors and tourists poked, prodded and hefted a thousand different models of assault rifles, grenade launchers and even a few Gatling guns. They peered into the innards of gigantic armoured vehicles and tanks with the same naked interest they'd have shown a mastodon skeleton at a natural history museum.

The best fun, however, is to be had at the Virtsim booth. The company sells "virtual reality tactical training". You don a motion capture suit and a headset that lets you see the virtual 3D environment. Your movements are tracked by cameras and translated into the virtual world. To the outside observer, you are wandering aimlessly around an empty stage, but in your reality, you're battling against a team of terrorists.

Perhaps in an attempt to overturn cultural stereotypes, the terrorists you are fighting are not your run-of-the-mill Taliban types. They are instead Kalashnikov-wielding hipsters in ironic T-shirts. It turns out that there's an enemy out there nearly everyone can agree on.

Idex is obviously not for everyone, and those with an under-active humour gland might accuse me of making light of devices designed to kill or maim. They would be right. My only excuse is that I react with the same exuberance when presented with an iPad - gadgets are gadgets, and the gadgets at Idex are par excellence.

I was entranced by armour designed to disguise 50-tonne tanks from thermal sensors by giving the vehicle a pitted surface. Apparently, the difference in heat created by the uneven surface breaks up its heat signature, making it disappear; simple, elegant, amazing.

There is no doubt that an inordinate amount of human ingenuity is devoted to making weapons. Take, for example, Whitebox Robotics. The Korean company designs remote-controlled vehicles for patrols, which clients kept crashing. Their solution was to create a helmet that allowed you to see and hear what the robot did, and direct its camera with a turn of the head.

The obvious follow-up project was applying that technology to a machine gun turret, which the technician demonstrated to me. That its ultimate purpose is to shoot intruders does not detract from its technical brilliance.

Under the florescent lights of the convention centre, it is sometimes hard to put the items on display in the appropriate context. Cochrane International builds security barriers, but what catches your eye is not the barbed wire or fencing made out of tempered steel. You are immediately drawn to a large orange orb covered in concentric circles from which jut steel spikes. It looks sinister, like something that might drop on your head if you pressed the doorbell at the home of someone like Dr No.

It is, however, a buoy designed to stop boats from entering ports. The effects were explained by a helpful series of photos in a glossy brochure. They showed a boat hitting the barrier and mannequins flying out of the boat before landing in the water, several metres away. While it is a simple and effective strategy, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of regret that my initial assessment wasn't accurate.

Not everyone shares an objective love for gizmos. If you can't look at a smoke grenade without seeing Hosni Mubarak, don't go. The rest of you have one more day to take in the sights. You won't be disappointed.