Marines encounter avatars, or virtual humans, during a room-clearing exercise at the Infantry Immersion Trainer at Camp Pendleton, Calif. (U.S. Navy)
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Can you hear me now? Technicians at the Marine Corps’ Infantry Immersion Trainer here are updating avatars so that the virtual humans can automatically respond to trainees’ actions and verbal commands.
The IIT is a simulated combat town complete with visual and audio effects, smell generators and role players. Like all such facilities, it’s meant to put Marines in as realistic a scenario as possible so that they make mistakes at home rather than in theater.
One feature of the indoor training area is dark rooms with projected, computer-generated avatars that respond to trainees who are conducting searches or room clearing operations, or practicing shoot/no shoot scenarios. While the avatars are typically manipulated by operators in a control room who receive an audio and visual feed of the trainees, those who run the IIT are looking for ways to reduce operator stress by automating avatar responses. This means the system can roll out more easily to other IITs or free the controllers up for other tasks.
As recently as Aug. 27, coordinators at the IIT were testing the functionality of avatars using voice-recognition systems. Currently, the avatars can respond to commands in English, such as an order to get down on the ground. Technicians are working to add recognition of voice commands given in Pashto.
Jonell Laxa, the IIT simulation technician lead, said the voice-recognition system’s main challenge is filtering out audio, communications and ambient noise. Laxa says the system works well when it the environment is quiet, “but it will be a little bit different when we get a full training unit in there.”
Controllers at IIT have also installed Xbox Kinect game system cameras that can be used to detect motion. The avatars can then track the trainee across the room and potentially respond to their actions.
“The things that we do get out of it can be deployed to other training areas like Lejeune and Hawaii,” said Robert Thielen, who manages the IIT site here.
While live role players are typically the stars in adding realism at a place like IIT, the avatars are growing in complexity and capability. Role players in motion-capture suits can play multiple parts, with their avatars being dropped onto the screens in the darkened rooms.
Other avatars use radio frequency identification tracking to escalate the action. When a trainee wearing a tag that marks his position enters a room, it triggers certain responses from the avatar. One such character, “Angry Grandmother,” has several triggers, depending on how close the trainees get to her during a home search for contraband. Her potential reactions include “anger, rage, worry, despair and hysterical sobbing,” Laxa said.
Using avatars is an alternative to hiring potentially expensive role players, though developing avatars is also an investment. Laxa said he expected to see more of the avatars and animatronics — electro-mechanical mannequins similar to those used at Disneyland — to fill in for role players and free up operators.
“We’ll find a lot more usage of the system once that training budget scales back,” Laxa said.