school shooter animation (DHS S&T)

VR training puts officers in the virtual line of fire

When a school shooter in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, the attack started with a fire alarm. This was something new. It prompted researchers building a simulated environment to help school officials and law enforcement train for school shooting scenarios to add a fire alarm to their training platform.

“That was not an activity that anyone thought of including as an option for the good guy, or bad guy or anyone else to do when putting together the school environment,” said John Verrico, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate. “So now they’re incorporating that into the school scenario, that someone might have the ability to pull the fire alarm.”

When this virtual  school-shooter scenario is released in July -- in time for the next school year, Verrico pointed out -- it will be the latest iteration of the DHS S&T Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (EDGE). The platform was created in 2013 by DHS and the Army to train military personnel and civilian first responders. The last version came out last summer and features a 26-story hotel that included a number of different environments from restaurants to event spaces.

EDGE is an animated environment DHS built on a game engine to help police, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel and, with the newer iteration, teachers, train for active shooter scenarios. It doesn’t use a VR headset, but instead uses a computer screen -- so cash-strapped public-sector agencies can more readily access it -- and a keyboard and mouse for controlling an on-screen avatar.

None of the avatars that are part of the action in EDGE -- the good guys or bad guys -- are powered by artificial intelligence. It is designed to have humans behind the controls, running through the scenarios. AI does control some bystanders, Verrico said.

DHS decided to add the school setting because of the increasing number of school shootings  and the importance of training on-site school employees.

“By the time law enforcement arrives on the scene, the scenario is pretty much over,” Verrico said, “so it’s really, really important for teachers and school staff to understand what they can do to keep the students safe in that critical time before law enforcement even gets on the scene.”

More than 500 agencies have already reached out to DHS for access to EDGE, though some might have to wait until 2019 after they've scheduled and completed training on it, Verrico said.

But EDGE is far from the only option for law enforcement agencies that want to expand their training options. VR training has become popular for police because of the importance of getting adequate preparation, according to Chase Dittmer, co-founder of APEX Officer, which offers virtual reality training technology for the military and law enforcement agencies.

“The ultimate cost of training in a police department is if you don’t do it correctly, you could lose a life,” Dittmer said.

VR training has recently gone from the show-and-tell phase to something more people are actually looking to invest in, according to David Cleverdon, the owner of 360 Immersive, a company that builds VR experiences with 360-degree cameras.

“Up until this year, it has been mostly been about showing people the technology and … educating, but this year we’ve actually had people come to us that are using it and are looking for a better vendor,” Cleverdon said.

Both APEX Officer and 360 Immersive have collaborated with law enforcement agencies to develop VR training experiences. APEX Officer worked with dozens of police departments in California to inform its solution, and a couple of departments will be using its platform as part of their training in 2019, Dittmer said. 360 Immersive has worked with police departments, including the Idaho State Police, on its 360-video environments, Cleverdon said.

360 Immersive's training solutions use both with animation and 360 video, which offer different benefits. Animation allows the user to move around and interact with the environment. The 360-degree video is much less expensive to create, but users are “on a rail,” meaning they can’t explore the environment and must stay the path recorded by the content creator, Cleverdon said.

The company is also working on a service that trains police departments to use a 360-degree camera so they can film their own training scenarios, send the footage back to 360 Immersive and have it edited into a final training product.

APEX Officer's platform features  animated environments built on a game engine. Along with a VR headset, users can also strap on a heart-rate monitor, don a haptic feedback suit and even get a gun outfitted with CO2 cartridges to create a blowback effect, Dittmer said.

The avatars in APEX Officer are informed by AI from IBM Watson, which, in combination with dynamic scenario generator(an algorithm that randomizes certain situation variables) ensure than even the "same" scenario will be different every time, he told GCN.

This ability to change the training from one user to the next was something multiple officers noted during APEX Officer’s research. Many police departments use a firearms training simulator, which places officers in front of a screen, and they shoot at what appears. But being able to predict -- or learn from colleagues -- what to expect limits the effectiveness of training for unexpected situations. Randomization removes that limitation, Dittmer said.

VR training experiences aren’t meant replace in-person training, Verrico said, but they provide a way for departments to get more hours of training for less money.

“Nothing replaces the ability to actually do things in real life,” he said. “To train physically and in person is always going to be better, but it is also resource and time intensive.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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