Without any controllers or wires, simply wave your hand to access your avatar and play video games controlled entirely by your body's movement. Use a neuroheadset to connect wirelessly to a PC and control games and virtual environments using only your mind. Enjoy a 3-D movie then place a video call to your business partner — all from the comfort of your own home.
The everyday consumer has instant access to these technologies, with products like Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360, Emotiv's EPOC neuroheadset, flat-screen 3-D TVs and Cisco's umi telepresence. You could outfit your family living room with the latest in immersive, interactive technology for about $2,500. These developments are occurring in the commercial space at breakneck speed, and the defense industry is sprinting to keep pace.
"I see government letting industry lead us now, when historically the government has been the leader," Tami Griffith, a science and technology manager with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Simulation and Technology Training Center (STTC), said. "Now, we're at a place to let industry guide us as they're trying to improve the user's experience in their own living rooms."
Doug Maxwell, also a science and technology manager with STTC, said soldiers are experiencing a gap between the technology they use at home and what they are offered for military training. "Our soldiers are able to go to the store and get very high-def technology to play in," Maxwell said. "But they're not trained to that same level of fidelity. Anything less than what they expect is going to be distracting to them."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, addressed the rapidly changing learning environment at the AUSA Winter Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February. "The next revolution in training our Army must be built around home station," he said.
Dempsey emphasized the need to reframe fundamentals, develop an affordable learning continuum of blended training and place greater demand on the individual for his development.
"We need to provide interesting, relevant and credible training scenarios," he said. Dempsey detailed his vision for a future integrated training environment, to include "intelligent holograms and avatars for team leader engagement and for interrogations," and "a virtual collaborative environment in which to conduct after-action reviews."
As the defense industry sprints to keep pace with emerging commercial technologies, it also juggles the return to home station training, the need for dismounted soldier and irregular warfare training and a strained budget environment. Through these challenges, some of the most cutting-edge interactive, immersive training technologies are emerging, designed to cut costs, bring people closer together and adapt to the next generation of digital natives.
With the Evolver product from Darwin Dimensions, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., users can upload photos and customize the appearance and clothing of their avatar. Then, users can employ FaceFX technology from Raleigh, N.C.-based OC3 Entertainment, to make their avatar talk using realistic facial animation data driven by an audio recording of a human voice.
OC3 Entertainment co-founder Doug Perkowski and Tim Blagden, vice president of business development for Darwin Dimensions, often partner and offer their complementary technologies to tremendously lower the technical knowledge users need in order to create a customized, animated avatar that is ready to be dropped into a 3-D environment.
"They're getting a super high-quality character from Evolver at a very low price, and then getting the capability to drive that character with human voice and text, also at a very low price," Perkowski said. "The combination lets them create realistic talking scenarios for cultural training and adds to the experience of a 3-D simulation."
FaceFX's animation technology is already a standard in the video game industry and is used in hundreds of titles. "We're eager to take the technology and the know-how we've gained in the video game industry and apply it to other industries," Perkowski said.
He attended the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando for the first time in 2010. "It signaled a wide commitment toward training in 3-D," Perkowski said. "Everybody was jockeying for positions as far as how they're going to be able to address the next generation of requirements, including facial animation."
Blagden exhibited Evolver at GameTech 2010, and afterward was invited to STTC to discuss the product's capabilities more in depth. "There's serious interest within the Army and across the whole serious games and training spectrum in being able to have custom-speaking avatars," he said.
Perkowski said their products appeal to government customers who don't have the time and money to engineer custom avatars and speaking solutions from the ground up. He added that training with avatars in general is a money-saving solution. "People aren't just running to this because they like the technology," he said. "They're being pushed toward training applications where you push people through human simulations because it's cost-effective."
ICF International, based in Falls Church, Va., develops modeling and simulation programs for U.S. Army and Air Force soft skills training, such as negotiation, influence, governance and logistics. It recently used Evolver to develop avatars for a governance-based simulation requiring tailored avatars to mimic the cultural representation in a fictitious North African country. In this simulation, which will be available through the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) network in the fall, the player is put in positions of leadership and sees the impact of his decisions over time.
Another ICF program available through AKO teaches avatar-based negotiation, in which the player's avatar negotiates with an artificially intelligent avatar to help two feuding tribes reach a compromise over resources. Paul Cummings, modeling and simulation technical director with ICF, said avatar-based training has become more popular as barriers such as technology improve and cost declines, but for certain types of training such as negotiation, an avatar can actually be a more effective counterpart than a live actor. "Most people don't have the knowledge and skills to actively train against," he said.
Cummings said the company is exploring social complexity, what he believes to be the next phase in artificial intelligence (AI). In simulations designed for one player, the avatars generated by AI will respond to the player's actions. This collective AI will allow the avatars to share information with one another in social groups, gather in a crowd or break out into protest, showing the player the effects of his actions.
At STTC, one of the main priorities is developing an Enhanced Dynamic Geospecific Environment (EDGE) that can support a massive, multiplayer online game. Though currently a proof of principle, Griffith said it is intended to be part of TRADOC's Training Brain, a combination of systems, networks and databases designed to provide 3-D scenarios across live, virtual and constructive training environments.
TRADOC asked STTC to prove it's possible to have a large number of entities in a visually rich environment at a low cost. "Ultimately, you will see thousands of real-time avatars present and interacting in an environment, which is not now possible," Griffith said. "At I/ITSEC 2010, we proved this is a possibility."
The U.S. Air Force kicked off two yearlong operational assessments using avatars for telemental health applications at the beginning of fiscal year 2011.
Ten families at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, have the opportunity to interact with a deployed family member using avatars in a virtual world through a program called Virtual Family Support. Meanwhile, researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, are exploring the possibilities of Virtual World Therapy for clinical scenarios such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Each virtual world can be accessed via the Web with a username and password, and users enter the virtual world through an avatar they have created in their own likeness. From there, a number of different settings can be simulated, such as a home, clinic, school, yard or garage. Players then use voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology to speak with family members or others in the clinical setting.
"The demand is really generated from patients and active-duty members who are very tech-savvy and enamored with the technology," said Col. Antonio Eppolito, chief of Air Force telemedicine. "They are already using it with social networking sites and games like ‘Second Life.'Ÿ" SAIC is the prime contractor on the two programs, employing its Online Live Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE), a 3-D world that allows users to connect over computer networks. InWorld Solutions, which specializes in the use of virtual worlds for behavioral health care, is serving as a subcontractor.
Ivana Steigman, director of clinical design and research at InWorld, believes avatars are a good application for telemental health because they give users the opportunity to go beyond the limitations of verbal communication. "Virtual reality avatars give you space for direct experience and emotional impact," she said. "It gives people space not to just talk about things and imagine them but to actually do them."
In regard to the clinical application, Steigman said if people start practicing healthy habits such as exercising or refusing drugs in the virtual world, studies show they will start to change habits in the real world, as well.
For the family support model, the virtual world allows families to adjust the settings for certain situations, such as interacting in a schoolyard if a child is being bullied.
The family model also includes access to educational information regarding deployment and the family's overall mental health. "If you strengthen the resilience of the family by giving them some psychological education but allowing them to be connected throughout deployment, then the likelihood of them staying together and the less possibility for problems is much higher," Steigman said.
Eppolito said the programs have the potential to extend much further after the yearlong assessments. He said "Virtual Family Support" has the potential to be used for all deployed Air Force members through family readiness functions. Eppolito also envisions numerous future applications for Virtual World Therapy to allow anonymous and remote access to mental health care, such as virtual counseling sessions, group sessions and role playing.
Cubic Corp. unveiled its 4-D Fully Integrated Training Environment for the first time at I/ITSEC 2010 in response to the growing demand for immersive, irregular warfare training, such as the request for information released by U.S. Joint Forces Command in March 2010.
Cubic placed its own research and development efforts toward the rapid prototype creation of the COTS-based, virtual and constructive, immersive dome. "The question is where's the simulator for that close-combat, dismounted soldier," said John Lewis, the Orlando-based director of business development for Cubic Defense Applications. "It's not as easy as a flight or driver simulator. It's more difficult when you're dealing with the human dimension and trying to ensure that you're creating no negative training effects."
The STTC is also in the planning stages of expanding its 120-degree wraparound training system into an immersive dome. Maxwell said immersion systems pose challenges because of the inner-ear vestibular system, which controls balance. "If you're displaying something to someone and it's not matching what their vestibular system feels, then you can induce vertigo and cyber sickness," he said. "So you have to be very careful."
Lewis said Cubic's dome is intended to go beyond 3-D, with the ultimate goal of incorporating "hyper effects," such as sound, smell, physical exertion, stress, pain and weather. Cubic hopes to offer the 4-D environment as a next step in training, following its Mission Rehearsal Planning System, which uses 3-D modeling and terrain generation, gaming and constructive simulations for mission planning and execution. Lewis said the dismounted training suite would offer a "crawl, walk, run training strategy," allowing soldiers to practice on computers and in the fully immersive system before moving on to live training.
Trainees enter the dome to practice mission rehearsal in a virtual environment replicating any terrain in the world, and interact with life-size avatars, either played by live actors or with pre-defined behaviors and actions. At I/ITSEC, a soldier entered an Afghanistan market as bombs went off in the surrounding area, and interacted with a civilian played by a live actor.
The system is intended to save money by significantly decreasing the need for live exercises and the number of live role players. In scenarios in which interactive dialogue is necessary, avatars can be played by live actors linked to the system from a central location. "Artificial intelligence has a way to go before you can have full interaction and dialogue with an avatar," Lewis said. "There are times where you need a live avatar actor who is connected."
New York City-based Organic Motion is blending the live and virtual worlds with its Avatar Target Insertion Program (ATIS), which uses the company's wireless motion capture system to project avatars played by live actors into dismounted soldier training facilities.
"The idea is saving money, scaling this so one call center with actors in one location can outsource on the fly," Andrew Tschesnok, CEO of Organic Motion, said.
With this system, one actor can play several parts in the same exercise, for example, being projected into one room as a child and into the next room as an old woman. Or, one actor may be linked to multiple training sites in the same day, cutting the number of actors needed.
"Without having all of this technology glued to the body, you can step in and become a character," Tschesnok said. "It's getting the human element into simulation that's really been missing. There is a huge push to get this to the dismounted soldiers."
Organic Motion was listed as a possible technology insertion candidate in Lockheed Martin's successful bid for the Urban Operations Training System (UOTS) contract, awarded in January by the U.S. Army Program Executive Office of Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI). However, no formal announcement of subcontractors has been made yet, according to Organic Motion and Lockheed Martin representatives.
Lewis said to be successful in today's environment, industry needs to understand and assess requirements before they actually become requirements. "The DoD is communicating to industry where we're headed, and industry has to be prepared when the RfP is put on the ground that we can respond rapidly," he said.