Virtual world technologies aid real world problems

Fight simulators and tank simulators occupied some of the most commanding positions as usual on the show floor at this year’s just-concluded Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando.

The conference draws specialists from every branch of the military, together with industry and academic experts. However, many of the speakers expressed the keenest interest in achieving better simulations for training soldiers on the ground – not only for fighting and maneuvering but for interacting with civilians and other players in situations where language and cultural barriers must be bridged.

Technologies for immersive displays, sound, and even odor generators, together with speech recognition, and machine translation have advanced to the point where simulation may be the best training for some of the most daunting challenges soldiers face in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on other complex missions.

“We need to challenge the assumption that live training is always the best,” said Samuel Kleinman, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Readiness. Although a simulated experience may not replicate every aspect of live training, the military can provide it more frequently and at a lower cost and cover a wider range of scenarios than would be practical in a live exercise. Live training requires soldiers to stand in for the enemy and hired role players as civilians. "All modes of training have some measure of artifice to them,” Kleinman said.

Brigadier Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who led a brigade in Iraq before being assigned to his current post as Commander of the Army’s 20th Support Command, said his attendance at the show was causing him to rethink his long-held belief that live training was the best preparation for combat. The complexity of the missions soldiers must fulfill today may be such that it’s difficult to replicate in a traditional training center, he said. “Some of that complexity may be better replicated in a simulation.”

Civilian law enforcement, emergency responder training, and disaster preparedness organizations can use some of the same technologies. For example, the Naval Air Warfare Center demonstrated a technology transfer project that enables a police officer to practice responding to a domestic dispute where he must decide whether to use lethal or non-lethal force. In the show floor demonstration, Richard Diaz of the Navy police force in Orlando faced a screen with life-sized avatars of a man and his wife, wearing a headset that he used to talk to them and an instrumented weapons belt, giving him the choice of a gun, a taser, and pepper spray. Although he tried during the simulation to talk the belligerent husband into complying with his orders, in this exercise Diaz ultimately had to shoot the man after he ducked into his home and came back waving a gun.

Across the show floor, BBN Technologies demonstrated a comparable military scenario, where the game was to man a war zone checkpoint and question those who approached. In this case, BBN was using its own voice recognition software and scenario in combination with Virtual Battle Space 2 (VB2), one of the commercially available products for simulating military operations.

VB2, which is used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, was on display at many booths across the show floor in addition to that of its creator, Bohemian Software of Australia. A number of other vendors showed how their hardware and software could work with VB2 in various applications. VB2 itself provides a virtual world that avatar representations of soldiers can move through, with representations of weapons, ballistics and other real world physics, vehicles, aircraft, terrain, and buildings. Through an application programming interface, it’s possible to enrich the virtual experience by integrating other products. For example. Alelo Inc. makes language and cultural understanding products, such as Virtual Iraqi and Virtual Dari, that work with the VB2 virtual world. 

Increased realism

Laser Shot let conference attendees practice on a virtual rifle range featuring life-size VB2 imagery projected on its booth wall, in combination with simulated weaponry. But Laser Shot also had its own simulations running in a virtual shoot house, a demonstration of the company’s new Real Combat product. There, soldiers and other conference attendees could practice running through a series of rooms with imagery of simulated foes projected on the walls. On the conference floor, these battles were fought with a laser scoring system, but Laser Shot also supports simulations using live ammunition and real weapons, where the bullets are fired through a self-sealing rubber screen and thermal tracking is used to score hits. The company recently announced an installation at Fort Bragg where its technology was used to modernize an existing target range.

Director of Software Development Kevin Bass said Laser Shot is committed to making these simulations realistic, so that the “ballistics are real ballistics” and weapon effects in the game mirror what soldiers will experience in combat. “We don’t want to provide negative training” that creates unrealistic expectations, he said. A built-in simulation editor also allows the exercise administrator to change the placement and behavior of the virtual opponents, without being dependent on a consultant to create a new scenario, Bass said. That’s important to prevent trainees from gaming the system, he said.

This new product adds a skeletal model for simulated opponents, so hits are scored based on whether they hit bone or an internal organ, rather than on a more abstract gaming model. And it doesn’t shy away from showing blood and guts. “These soldiers are going to see worse things than this, so we don’t want to hide the fact that you might see someone’s head blown off,” Bass said.

That mirrors the desire expressed by Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Commander U.S. Joint Forces Command, for simulations to be realistic enough to prepare soldiers for “intimate killing in the most ethically bruising environment on Earth.” Bass said his programmers were adding the ability to represent situations where women and children may be caught in the cross-fire, which is part of the reality soldiers now face.

Other simulations, such as one being demonstrated at the General Dynamics booth, covered situations where words and gestures are more relevant than bullets, such as trying to establish rapport with Afghan villagers who might have valuable information. Created with the Torque game engine, it prompts users to choose from a menu of possible approaches likely to elicit different reactions, and the characters talk back to you. For example, if you choose to approach a villager by pointing and shouting, rather than approaching in a more deferential manner, the response is, “Why do you point at me? I am not an animal. Go away.”

The game was created by a contractor, Mymic of Portsmouth, Va., as an extension to General Dynamics courseware, and tests students’ ability to avoid cultural missteps. While less immersive than some other simulations, it also requires less computer power and can be deployed over the web.

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