The U.S. Army is building a giant VR battlefield to train soldiers virtually

 Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, commanding general, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command tries his hands at One World Terrain.
Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, commanding general, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command tries his hands at One World Terrain. U.S. Army

In the 2014 sci-fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow (also known as Live. Die. Repeat), Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a public relations officer with no combat experience, who somehow gets stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. Forced to participate in a battle against a seemingly unbeatable foe, the initially hopeless Cage becomes increasingly effective by reliving the day of the attack over and over. Each time he dies, Cage wakes up on the day preceding the attack takes place.

Being able to train in this way is a luxury that’s not afforded to today’s combat troops. As many drills as you run, as much strategic briefing takes place, the reality is that nothing can prepare you for being in a real combat zone. Suddenly things become a whole lot more unpredictable — and unpredictability is difficult to train for. Especially when one mistake could lead to serious injury or worse.

The Synthetic Training Environment

The U.S. Army has an idea to help with this, however — and it’s one that could help supercharge the way that military training is carried out. Called the Synthetic Training Environment, the initiative aims to create a unified training environment for the infantry that lets soldiers practice combat scenarios dozens, potentially even hundreds, of times before setting foot in a battlezone.

Taking advantage of cloud-based computing and the latest virtual reality technology, the STE will allow soldiers to strap on a pair of VR or mixed reality goggles and immediately be transported to any country or terrain, along with their squadron.

“As part of our work for the Army under contract for STE, we’re developing a cloud-enabled, massively multiplayer training and simulation environment that uses a common terrain for the entire planet,” Pete Morrison, chief commercial officer for the military simulation software developer Bohemia Interactive Simulations, told Digital Trends. “This would enable the Army to conduct virtual training and complex simulations anywhere on a virtual representation of the Earth. STE will leverage cloud technologies to deliver training to anywhere it’s needed, ensuring a common and high-fidelity whole-Earth terrain representation for a multitude of different simulation systems.”

While it’s not a replacement for live training, the idea of STE is that it will be available whenever and wherever it’s required. That means that it can be used equally well in well-equipped combat training centers, at home station, or even during deployment. It can also be fine-tuned to a variety of different training scenarios: not just against different enemies, but simulating training environments for everything from battalion level through mission command. By gathering data points in real time during training, potential problems can be spotted (and nipped in the bud) before they become a, well, problem.

The military’s history with VR

The United States military is no stranger when it comes to virtual reality. Like artificial intelligence, the Department of Defense has been a big sponsor of VR throughout its long, and often tumultuous, history.

As far back as the 1970s, long before “virtual reality” had even been given its name by the computer scientist Jaron Lanier, a military engineer named Thomas Furness dreamed up a pilot training tool called the “Super Cockpit.” This ambitious (and expensive) flight simulator project involved a real aircraft cockpit, into which could be projected computer-generated 3D maps, infrared and radar imagery, and assorted avionics data into a three-dimensional space. It gave trainee pilots a whole new way of learning to fly planes without ever having to leave the hanger.

Virtual reality dome impact of real-life scenarios on cognitive abilities
Natick’s virtual reality dome enables researchers to assess the impact of the environment on Soldier cognition, including decision-making, spatial memory or wayfinding. David Kamm, NSRDEC

Since then, VR has been frequently experimented with by different branches of the military. Infantry training, however, poses a considerable challenge. As it turns out, as challenging as a pilot’s job is, simulating the experience of flying a plane is comparatively easy. It involves one immediate location and a limited number of friendly or enemy agents to interact with. The infantry is different.

In increasingly urban environments, today’s soldiers are dealing not just with friendly and enemy forces, but also civilians, who can bring with them their own complex population dynamics. Add onto that the demands of “massively multiplayer” training, the technical demands of virtual reality, and you have a scenario that would make the developers of GTA Online quake in their boots. (Let’s not forget that the accuracy of this version of GTA Online could affect real men and women’s lives if it’s not up to the job!)

Creating a complex virtual world

This is where BISim’s training and simulation software, based on a rendering engine called VBS Blue, aims to help. “What’s exciting about what we’re doing is that the Army will be able to dramatically scale up the number of intelligent entities represented in simulation scenarios to the millions,” Morrison continued. “Previously, only tens or hundreds of thousands of entities would be represented, and those would be aggregated to reduce the complexity of simulating large forces.”

Using a unique A.I. layer, the software also allows these millions of intelligent entities can act of their own accord. That means that no two training scenarios will be exactly like. The software is additionally able to interact with the DoD’s existing simulation systems, meaning that the infantry will be able to practice in a shared virtual world with, say, a helicopter simulator. The importance of this cannot be underestimated when it comes to preparing for a scenario in which hundreds or thousands of soldiers, with individual specialities, must work together under highly pressurized circumstances.

Last but not least, the models in BISim’s system can be easily updated: allowing for the training environment to reflect how a particular location is at that moment, rather than how it was when the software was first developed.

“Scenarios are usually ‘reset’ at the end of training, so a persistent environment would allow users to examine how tactical actions could have a strategic effect on the broader simulated population,” said Morrison. “By using the cloud and a common global terrain it will allow soldiers in-theater to provide updates to the terrain where they’re deployed and let soldiers at home station train in the same virtual environment. [That will let them further] increase their readiness for deployment.”

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