By CRAIG GILBERT
Meek, reserved and imaginative are likely not the first three words that come to the mind of a Canadian after hearing "United States Navy."
They are, however, three words that, when combined with terms such as visionary and computer whiz, describe Thunder Bay's own U.S. Navy software contractor of record.
Douglas McCormack was profiled in the pages of Northern Ontario Business less than a year ago for landing a gig custom building what is essentially a radio play for war game training scenarios.
It's called Battlefield Voice System (BVS) and is based upon a free program called Read Please, which reads text on a computer screen such as email out loud for the visually impaired.
McCormack and his brother originally developed Read Please as a reading machine for their father, whose failing vision prevented him from reading the newspaper.
In 2000, the US Navy downloaded a copy of the text-to-speech program from his Web site, www.cormatech.com, and requested the war games software, which features robot voices issuing commands and information that soldiers in training exercises can hear and must respond to.
Now the Navy has contracted his company, CorMac Technologies, for a major rewrite of the program, which will this time around feature recorded human voices. That will be a major boost for the realism of the experience, he says.
"We're rewriting the whole program into C++ QT Trolltech instead of Visual Basic," he says. "This is what the other military contractors are using, so it allows better compatibility. It also allows Linux and Windows (usage)."
McCormack has been doing small upgrades on the program since the Navy received the original version, but this rewrite will take up about the next year of his working life.
That is going to push back some upgrades to other big sellers of CorMac's such as their data mining and neural net software packages, but McCormack isn't crying in his silicon chips.
McCormack says if other countries or military forces want to talk software, he's all ears, but he won't be pounding any pavement looking for clients in the next while.
"We're hoping actually to get more ongoing work from the U.S. along this line," he muses. "We're developing a nice relationship with the military contractor who is providing all the hardware our software is going to interface with. There might be the possibility to get more work either from the
contractor or the military itself. It seems the military prefers to deal with large contractors rather than deal with little guys like us."
Contractually, McCormack has to let the Navy share the software with the other arms of the American war machine.
"They're talking to different branches, the Air Force, Marines and Army," he says. "They do these exercises with joint forces and also sometimes with other countries."
In fact, Navy staffers are already talking about future enhancements and "different variations of this whole idea," he says.
Contractor of record
McCormack, as alluded to above, is in good standing with the U.S. Navy. Its purchasing department now recognizes CorMac Technologies under its sole source justification policy. That basically means the Navy can contract McCormack at will without having to go through a competitive bidding process each time.
"I know they had to jump through some hoops internally to accomplish this."
Some of that other technology McCormack is working on could be considered plagiarism by science fiction buffs.
Those software products that will be put on the back burner to the Navy contract, such as VisiRex and NeuNet Pro, include cutting-edge artificial intelligence.
"We're selling a neural network program. It's software that's designed to learn from experience. We have a demo (on the Web site) about who has cancer and who doesn't based on their tests. We also have a demo that predicts the horsepower of a car with the engine specs, all kinds of neat things like that."
There is "quite a bit" of this cutting-edge artificial intelligence research going on now around the globe, according to McCormack.
"I think what happens is it sounds like science fiction and really amazing stuff, and as it becomes mainstream it's just called data mining and people accept it.
"When the 'real magic' becomes reality, it's just accepted as what computers can do."
He comes up with a lot of new ideas in the course of a day or even the middle of the night, sometimes to the detriment of projects already underway.
"You end up with a lot of programs half done," he says with some humour.
"When you get halfway through, it's not so interesting."
There's also a lot of "why didn't I do it this way or that way" for programmers, he says.
"I think all programmers experience that. They'd like to start the whole thing again and do it a different way. Maybe musicians are the same way.
Once they've released a song, they think of things they could have done differently."
McCormack relates the software engineering experience to that of an artist.
He sees it as a very imagination-driven, creative process. He has enjoyed it since high school.
"A fun little project we've been working on is called CQ Phone," he says. "It allows people to talk to each other over the Internet on a telephone and a Web cam, like the instant messengers. We're having a lot of fun with that.
"We're trying not to spend too much time on it because it's not a moneymaker.
But it may turn out that way if the Navy doesn't keep him too busy. A CQPhone demo on his Web site has been accessed over 20,000 times in the past few months.