The epicenters of Army simulation are in Orlando, Fla., and Leavenworth, Kan., but the Army’s Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., is putting some skin in the virtual game. Over the last 18 months, the center has doubled the size of its Gaming, Interactive Technologies and Multimedia Branch to about 25 staff and contractors, according to branch chief Brad Drake.
Its flagship project is a virtual simulator for the M777A2 towed 155-millimeter howitzer, which is used by the Army and U.S. Marine Corps. The elaborately named M777A2 Computer Based Trainer/Computer Aided Instruction (CBT/CAI) Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI) is a team-based trainer for crew training. Users control up to four crew positions while AI handles another four.
There are four levels of instruction, according to Jessica Francois, training aids manager for Product Manager Towed Artillery Systems: passive instruction, which presents a slide show; limited participation, where the user makes simple decisions such as moving his avatar to the correct position on the howitzer; complex participation, where the user can consult an interactive technical manual as he navigates the simulation; and real-time participation mode, where he can network with three other users. A player’s results are recorded for after-action review.
The software can run on laptops, though a more sophisticated Lightweight Desktop Trainer-Institutional will allow networking with desktops and an instructor station. “Our hope is to create a fully dynamic set of training products that all reinforce one another and can be beneficial in multiple environments,” Francois said.
The M777A2 simulator uses the Unity game engine, chosen because of its low price tag, digital footprint and maintainability, according to Drake. The simulator is scheduled for release in FY2014. The M777 howitzer, manufactured by BAE Systems, is also used by the Canadian Army and has seen service in Afghanistan.
One advantage of ARDEC maintaining an in-house game design shop is that it put its game designers in close contact with both customers and subject matter experts.
“Having the development capability co-located with our customers is definitely a benefit for communication and logistical reasons,” Drake said. “More importantly, having the development team and subject matter experts for the systems being simulated on the same installation is a great benefit. ARDEC’s experienced engineers coupled with the customer’s resources allow for a smoother, more efficient development pipeline.”