Federal Contract Law: Creativity is key to this military program

Joseph J. Petrillo

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I visited a place that is putting into practice what many in Washington have merely preached.

The Institute for Creative Technologies uses technology from the entertainment industry to help solve military problems like training and simulation.

The movie industry is great at putting theatergoers into un-real but totally convincing environments. And anyone who has seen the new breed of computer games knows how far they have come from the two-dimensional worlds where we first met Mario and Sonic.

The military can use these skills. Soldiers need to learn how to act and react before they get to a different kind of theater. Realistic simulation can be a powerful and bloodless way to train.

The dilemma is how to bring together creative types from the movie industry, freewheeling computer gamers and straight-laced military officers. In addition to cultural problems, there is an economic limitation. R&D funds from the Defense Department are too paltry to entice traditional media companies into government contracts.

ICT may have a solution. After an eye-opening (and ear-opening) visit, I spoke with the executive director, Richard Lindheim. He told me that part of the solution comes from the institute's ties to the University of Southern California. As a component of USC, the center has access to an administrative infrastructure already accustomed to federal contracting rules. Lindheim also told me that the USC connection lets ICT remain small. He thinks it would be much harder to achieve effective collaboration in a larger organization.

But ICT is still a separate entity. Its off-campus location in Marina del Rey gives it some physical and psychological distance from academia. In effect, ICT, with USC's help, acts as a buffer zone between two very different cultures.

But this project wouldn't work without a flexible and innovative approach to contracting.
According to Lindheim, the record here is mixed. DOD has shown meaningful flexibility on intellectual property rights. Although DOD gets full rights to use IP for its own purposes, ICT retains the ability to exploit the developed technologies commercially.

On the other hand, Army contracting officials still scrutinize ICT's costs, even though this is a fixed-price contract. For instance, they sometimes object to ICT recovering its investment of time and effort to start a project that the government later approves, calling these 'precontract costs.'

You may be hearing more about ICT soon. One commercial spin-off is an interactive exhibit planned for Washington's Newseum, the museum of news. And soon the commercial version of its military simulation game will be available for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox. Called Full-Spectrum Warrior, it already garnered top honors at E3, the pre-eminent gamer's convention. The preview I saw was awesome.

ICT's success shows that there is enough flexibility within current laws and regulations to do some very creative and innovative things. What is needed is not more programs, or even greater flexibility, but rather people who understand the tools they have and are willing to use them.

Joseph J. Petrillo is a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Petrillo & Powell. E-mail him at jp@petrillopowell.com.

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