ORLANDO — Virtual reality is beginning to break through into the mainstream, and the defense sector is no exception. Rockwell Collins' newest "mixed reality" system, Coalescence, puts a twist on familiar virtual reality concepts with the aim of making training more lifelike.

According to Nick Gibbs, the company's vice president and general manager of simulation and training solutions, mixed reality differs from virtual reality in several key ways. In a virtual reality setting, everything is simulated. That's not the case in mixed reality, which blends in elements from the real world so the user can practice with actual hardware and humans, he said.

"Say you've got a driver and a gunner on a Humvee — you can actually interact with each other," he said. "You know how you see in those virtual reality applications, they have these goofy-looking virtual hands that mimic your hands or mimic a phony rifle? In this case, you'd have the real rifle, you'd really be shooting bullets, and you could look over and take visual cues from the driver, and then everywhere else you'd have a virtual environment. So it's a much more highly realistic interactive situation."

Rockwell Collins on Monday is introducing Coalescence at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando, Florida. Two demos will be showcased at the company’s booth: an F/A-18 "ready room" where pilots prepare for a flight from an aircraft carrier, and a ship bridge simulation.

"The advantage would be to have a very small footprint on an aircraft carrier" that would allow F/A-18 pilots at sea to prepare for and practice missions before they step into the cockpit and execute, Gibbs said.

"It would be a cost-reduced, highly improved fidelity environment to what exists today," he said. "What that would look like today is you might be in that same cockpit looking at a computer monitor, not really immersed in your aircraft."

The system can be configured several ways. One method is to mate an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset with existing simulation equipment, and pipe data from the simulator into the headset. At I/ITSEC, Rockwell Collins is showing how Coalescence works with an Oculus Rift and typical military hardware not hooked up to a simulator — items like a cockpit, displays and controls — which are integrated with the company’s core simulation architecture and a synthetic environment.

According to Gibbs, the "secret sauce" is how the software figures out what elements from the real world to bring into the virtual world and how to solve latency issues that may arise. For instance, in a situation where a person is holding a ball and then throws it to the user, the user needs to be able to see that ball and catch it without the simulated visuals lagging behind.

The technology isn’t quite ready for full-flight simulators yet, but it's quickly approaching the resolution and fidelity needed, Gibbs said.

" Moore’s lawis working here pretty hard, so it won’t be long. It will be a couple of years for sure," he said, referring to the co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, who anticipated that computing would increase in power and decrease in relative cost at an exponential pace.

Rockwell Collins plans to make Coalescence available in 2017, but the company is still looking for its first customer. Gibbs believes it could be adapted for a variety of missions including joint tactical air control, dismounted soldier, driver training and even some rotary-wing applications. But although the company is considering proposing it for several programs of record, it has already run into a problem — the technology has outpaced the currently defined requirements.

Gibbs summarized his argument to the US military as: "Let’s identify a set of requirements that satisfies the training needs assessment for the program, and enable those to be satisfied by different and new technology."

One selling point could be the cost. The company is still solidifying its cost model, but Gibbs said it will be "orders of magnitude less" than the $6 million to $10 million price tag of most flight simulators.