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From the Editor: Between Compliance and Creativity

Jan. 9, 2013 - 12:36PM   |  
By LAUREN BIRON   |   Comments
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“Everybody play nice” is no longer just a phrase for schoolchildren. Interoperability is the buzzword hanging over heads throughout the training and simulation industry. If your sim hasn’t proven that it can talk politely to others and run without breaking things, it won’t be welcome in the military.

The trick is ensuring conformance without squelching creativity.

As training increasingly combines live, virtual and constructive elements, it makes little sense to allow each kind of simulator to run on proprietary data and controls. Getting everything to speak the same language — at least in theory — increases effectiveness while saving money and time.

It’s no simple task, however. Integrating the three types of training requires the creation of live tracking data that both virtual and constructive systems can understand. Various simulators have to plug into a variety of databases, from terrain and graphics to models and weapons effects — and they all need to produce a coherent reality.

The Army is making good strides toward an architecture that will connect disparate systems. Soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, recently tried out the Integrated Training Environment, whose hardware and software enable communication among the three types of training. The technology should roll out to various Army posts over the next four years, creating more interoperable systems.

Likewise, some training within the Air Force connects simulators from across the country, allowing manned constructive or joint training from afar because of the common operating language. Though simulators can usually connect, they sometimes cannot share the databases and models that would allow them to fully integrate. The seams are often hilariously visible; in one type of training conducted by the Distributed Training Operations Center in Iowa, simulators that don’t have access to the right models for weapons or buildings will display beach balls instead.

The U.S. military’s interest in making training less stovepiped and more efficient is most concretely visible in recent requests for proposals for simulator contracts, which have begun to emphasize interoperable features. Other NATO countries also want to be able to easily link up their sims.

It’s a challenge that industry is striving to meet, but the difficulties are many, and not easily solved. Different generations of systems mean retrofitting is costly — though not as expensive as purchasing or making new versions that are interoperable. And while it is increasingly common for a single service to force its sims to communicate, there remains the task of developing a common protocol for the entire military, or even multiple militaries that want to conduct joint training.

Beyond the technical aspects or making sure different systems can access one another’s information, multinational training adds the extra difficulty of protecting classified information and putting proper safety nets in place.

Yet the drive to interoperability marches on, making more and more pieces of equipment interface with one another every day. As this continues, however, developers must also be wary of developing a potentially dangerous allegiance to whatever compatibility requirements are set. If the military insists on complete compatibility with a common standard, creators of the next generation of sims may find themselves torn between compliance and creativity — or walking a very fine line that strikes the ideal balance. And when it comes to technology, fear of experimentation can be a dangerous setback.

As new technologies emerge, sims need the flexibility to adapt and take advantage. No one can say exactly what the next technology revolution will be — a different style of computing, new materials that allow for faster processing or updating, or even entirely new weapons that require entirely new training.

Simulations will undoubtedly follow the new tech, as they should. We would hardly recognize the military if it stopped investing in the latest and greatest tech.

But for sims, this may mean stepping away from whatever common language the industry settles on. Both the industry and the military need to leave space for sims to grow and morph, even if it means they aren’t as fluent in the old paradigm.

Let’s not just stick the new sims in remedial English if they are communicating telepathically.

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