The Office of Naval Research is experimenting with new ways to view, control and interact with virtual environments. (John F. Williams/ / US Navy)
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COSTA MESA, CALIF. — The US Navy is trying to give developers and operators a look at the workplace of 2025 — a space full of unmanned vehicles, gesture-controlled robots, virtual meetings and 3D data visualization. Some of the technology hasn’t even been invented, much less fully fleshed out, but officials hope to get people excited about the possibilities, rapidly develop ideas in virtual environments and lay the groundwork for swift adoption of technologies as they arrive.
Inside a Southern California lab space called Blue Shark, researchers are exploring — and allowing visitors to try out — new applications that combine display technologies such as virtual and augmented reality and 3-D visualization systems with input devices from phones to tablets, head-mounted displays, gesture-control systems, and head- and hand-tracking systems. This is the Enhanced Environment for Communication and Collaboration (E2C2), sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) SwampWorks and created by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California.
“The idea was for us to think deeply about the issues that we’re going to have around 2025, what kind of technical capabilities we think will be there, what an 18- or 19-year-old would be expecting to find in the workplace,” said Todd Richmond, director of advanced prototype development and transition at ICT.
What started as an exploration of the meeting of the future — with virtual presence, avatars preprogrammed to respond to certain questions or text the owner for an answer, and “emotional tagging” during meetings to highlight the key moments for review — quickly spiraled into a virtual environment covering a wide array of technologies.
Perhaps the most crucial explorations concern unmanned vehicles, increasingly ubiquitous and essential. In May alone, the Russian Defense Ministry announced it would train soldiers on UAVs, US Army logistics officials confirmed the desire to remove drivers from ground convoys, and Oshkosh showed unmanned minesweeping trucks at a conference in Orlando, Florida. The Navy is developing unmanned surface vessels to detect mines and incorporating unmanned helicopters into operations.
“A bridge of a ship starts to not have a whole lot of meaning anymore,” Richmond said. “The bridge of a ship could be in Nevada.”
While a UAV operator might normally use a joystick, Blue Shark is developing ways to fly using a head-mounted display, offering a more intuitive and immersive experience. To help show its benefits, ICT developed a piracy scenario in which the user flies the drone into the area, surveys it, and determines a course of action against unidentified vessels. This practical application helps others in the Navy understand ways to combine technologies.
Lt. Cmdr. Brent Olde, division deputy for human and bio-engineered systems at ONR, noted that exposing designers and potential users to the technology possibilities excited them about unconsidered applications and also encouraged new ways of thinking about ship design and sensor design.
“Things don’t have to be as rigid as they used to be” because physical controls are no longer as tied to specific locations, Olde said. There is more flexibility for safety, convenience and function, and “that has implications on how you design a ship.”
Anything from communication sensors or controls to drones or small vessels can get dropped into a virtual environment like Blue Shark and quickly tested, tried, broken and studied. Ultimately, there is a hope to speed and streamline both research and development and acquisition.
“It’s much easier to build something in this environment, show it to your fleet user, get your feedback and redo that as many times as you want, because it’s a bunch of electrons versus bending metal,” Olde said.
Blue Shark also gives researchers a way to examine the growing “mixed timing” environments that soldiers and sailors will be expected to operate in. Controlling far-off drones or robots means a potential delay in actions and feedback. Richmond calls this being in the VAPOR, for Virtual, Augmented and Physical Operational Realities.
“We’re going to see these mixed environments where I have real-time information, and virtual and augmented and video coming in that may be delayed by varying amounts,” Richmond said. Controlling pieces of expensive real estate and making effective decisions will require training and understanding.
While simulation has been used as a cheaper but still imperfect alternative to training in the “real” world, operations are becoming increasingly virtual. The line between training and operating on a virtual system grows blurrier every day.
Feedback on Blue Shark from Navy users has been positive, and Richmond hopes to put more Blue Shark nodes for rapid prototyping and testing at additional locations besides the ICT and ONR headquarters. Additional scenarios scheduled for release in July will highlight ways to use gesture control and virtual control of real assets — namely, a robotic firefighting scenario that lets the user manipulate a robotic arm through natural motions. ■