The Navy’s Neat Little NeRD

The Navy is rolling out with a neat little device, and it’s got people talking.  It’s called the NeRD, and it’s going to help service members get the most out of their precious down time.

“The NeRD is the Navy eReader Device,” explains Nilya Carrato, program assistant for the Navy General Library Program.  “It’s a preloaded e-reader.  It’s an e-ink screen, no wifi needed.  We’re very excited about it.”

They’re not the only ones.  There’s been a lot of excitement/anticipation in the news about this little device recently.  But is this e-reader comparable to commercial items, or is the government hyping something up to be cooler than it is?

I decided to find out for myself.

I had the chance to play with one of these devices, and, honestly, it is a really cool little piece of technology.  Yeah, there are no apps or frills, but it’s small, it’s lightweight and it is easy to use.  The instructions are laminated, which is nice (especially for the nautical service members) and it’s shatter-proof, so it won’t break if you drop it.

Photo: Nilya Carrato, program assistant for the Navy General Library Program, shows Armed with Science's Jessica Tozer the Navy eReader Device, or NeRD, at the Defense Media Activity on Fort Meade, Md., May 12, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Niegel/Released)

Nilya Carrato, program assistant for the Navy General Library Program, shows Armed with Science’s Jessica Tozer the Navy eReader Device, or NeRD, at the Defense Media Activity on Fort Meade, Md., May 12, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Niegel/Released)

Now, you might be wondering if this means that the military will insist that you use their device in lieu of your own Kindle, Nook, etc.  That is not the case.  Since this is for entertainment, it’s not a “mandatory fun” device.  However, that’s not to say that your device will be as, ah, easy to use as the NeRD (depending on where you’re serving).

“You can still use your Kindle in the service, but the whisper-sync overseas is not the best, and if you try to plug it into your service computer, it’s not an approved external,” Nilya points out.  “So yeah, [the NeRD] is ready to go.”

The Navy General Library Program office came up with the requirements for the project, and since we’re talking about technology working with OPSEC (operations security), there are a few (expected) caveats. The NeRD has no wifi, and no camera available.  You can’t download additional content, and you can’t take the content that’s already on there off, so it comes in an as-is capacity.

Photo: Nilya Carrato, program assistant, Navy General Library Program, shows Armed with Science the Navy eReader Device.  The nerd is small and easy to use, which is handy when you're a service member operating in small spaces. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Niegel/Released)

Nilya Carrato, program assistant, Navy General Library Program, shows Armed with Science the Navy eReader Device. The nerd is small and easy to use, which is handy when you’re a service member operating in small spaces. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Niegel/Released)

In addition to the list of don’ts, Nilya’s office also got to list all the do’s for the device as well.  One of the things they chose is the e-ink vs. the backlit tablet so it’s legible in low-light.  This is great for service members, who don’t always have access to perfect reading light situations.

“You can put the bulk light on instead of worrying about the reflection off the tablet,” Nilya says. The screen is also adjustable, just like your commercial Kindle or Nook.  You can change the font size, and it’s very legible, which makes for a great reading experience.

By now you might be wondering what kind of horrible, antiquated, uninteresting books the military assigned to this device.  I, myself, was worried that this technology was going to be filled with things that service members would be only inclined to read if it were mandated by a superior.

It turns out that task was given not to a group of disconnected decision makers, but to a librarian with the goal of making the content a list of books worth reading.

“My job specifically was the fun one: I got to pick all the books that go on it,” Nilya tells me, much to my relief. “We got feedback from some of the service members in our office, as well as family members and friends, you know.  ‘If you’re stuck on a submarine for six months what books do you have to have?’”

I took a look at the reading list to see what sort of titles made the cut and guess what?  There are books worth reading on it!  I saw everything from non-fiction biographies, to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” to Shakespeare plays, to Tiny Fey’s “Bossypants.”

Right now the NeRD contains a collection of fiction and nonfiction, primarily for recreational purposes.  There are no manuals or technical specs on it.  It also includes the majority of the Chief of Naval Operations reading list.

“We weren’t able to get a couple of titles; one hadn’t been digitized, and a couple were produced by a publisher who didn’t sign us the content.  But it’s got a wide variety of fiction, all different genres, and we hope there’s something for everybody,” Nilya explains.

The NeRD is an e-reader with a mission, and that mission is really to broaden the available titles to service members while they are deployed.  The Navy does encourage reading in all capacities, and even boasts a digital library online.  However, with limited connectivity underway it’s kind of difficult to get to it.  Even when you can download stuff if all you have is your networked computer, you can’t port it over, Nilya points out.

Not a fan of the eReader, but still a fan of reading?  Not to worry, hard copy fans.  You can still get the actual book versions of literature, though your selection is not going to be as varied as it would be on the NeRD.

“We distribute paperback books to the fleet right now, but they’re going to be mostly best sellers, a lot of genre fiction,” Nilya says.  “So the classics are a little harder to get that way.  There’s a good selection of the classic literature on the device, and the non-fiction as well.”

There are about three-hundred books on the NeRD right now, but the device itself can actually fit a lot more books than they’ve put on it.  The reason for this, Nilya says, is to beta-test the device in the fleet.

“We want to see how the browse feature works, as well as the searching.  If you put too much content on the device no one’s going to be able to find what they want.”

Since the content can’t be touched digitally, the Navy General Library Program has a plan to roll out distribution and even eventual upgrades to the fleet.

Photo: Getting ready for shipping.  The NeRD augments the range of library services, which includes web-based digital library access to service members and their families at no charge. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo/Released)

Getting ready for shipping. The NeRD augments the range of library services, which includes web-based digital library access to service members and their families at no charge. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo/Released)

Right now they have produced nearly 400 versions of the NeRD 1.0, which are going to the submarines first.  Currently, they’re working on a title list for the NeRD 1.1, which will go to the surface fleet.  They’ll go through a series of different NeRDs, depending on the mission of the ship.

“Once we get to the AMPHIBs they’ll be Marines, and we have different title lists to work for, for the professional reading,” Nilya tells me.  “Then when we get back around to the submarines we’ll see if there’s any upgrades to the device, as well as upgrading the collection.”

The Navy General Library Program is a part of Morale, Welfare and Recreation.  They believe strongly in recreation leading to resiliency.  So, getting some quality down time really helps to make service members mission capable, Nilya says, which can help lead to discovery.

“I think the best thing about this e-reader is it’s being able to put 300 books essentially in the pocket of our service members.  It’s not just the access, it’s the storage, and we’re very excited.”

For submariners, this is where no connectivity needed is actually a good thing, since it’s hard to get a signal when you’re, you know, 500 feet underwater.  For all of you who travel the seas above the waters, the timeline for you to receive your e-reader might be sooner than you think.

“We do hope the NeRD will go fleet-wide, we don’t have a definite delivery date for all of the vessels, all the classes.  We’re definitely going to the small surface ships next, and we hope to get that out sometime within the next quarter, end of the fiscal year, hopefully.”

Not in the Navy but still hoping to get your own military-approved recreation device?  You’re in luck there, too.  The Navy General Library Program hopes to work with other service branches.  The option is there for the NeRD to go service-wide eventually.

“We hope that everybody finds something that they like,” Nilya says.  “It’s a wide variety: SciFi, fantasy, non-fiction, literature from all different areas of the globe.  So it’s not required reading, it’s fun reading.”

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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  • IT1 Caraway

    One way to make this infinitely better would be rate specific and have out bibs on them. The unclassified anyways. I know as an IT finding all the testable material is quite cumbersome in both amount of books and cost. Also a trade in yearly program to get the bibs and any needed updates.

    I love the idea of the Nerd. Great work!