ORLANDO, Fla. — -- Augmented virtual reality is emerging as a game changer for Marine Corps training, particularly for ground troops, service leaders said last week at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC).

Augmented virtual reality allows troops to see real terrain and people while simulated objects are superimposed onto the real scene to recreate scenarios found in battle.

The Marine Corps now relies heavily on live training events, but repetitious, high fidelity training -- — key to maintaining readiness — -- are few and far between, according to Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, who heads up the Corps' training and education.

"There is a lot of potential there in the area of augmented reality," Lukeman said, and in some cases it may be better for Marines training on the ground than using complete virtual reality as like pilots do in flight simulators.

Marines on the ground need to climb actual stairs, lean against actual walls, encounter real environments as they train, Marine Corps officials stressed.

"Virtual reality falls short," Lukeman said. "We can't communicate as well with the person on our right and left and so we need to use simulations to do collective small unit training."

Currently, using simulation requires the Marines Corps to have to go to a specific location to, set up, which can take several hours, and require heavy contractor support is required, Lukeman said. "We need simple devices to go where the Marines are and be used at home station for training."

And the solution needs to drastically bring the training cost down drastically, Brig. Gen. Joe Shrader, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, said.

The service is able to put less than 1 percent of its total annual budget into training, he said, which equates to $225 million in fiscal year 2016 dollars across research and development, procurement and operations, and maintenance accounts. Shrader said he doesn't see that number changing over the course of the Marine Corps' five-year budget plan.

Live-fire training is very expensive, Shrader said. For example, the cost of artillery ammunition has climbed during over the last decade. Ten years ago, a high explosive 155mm round cost was $200, but now costs has risen to $1,300 in order to bring the ammunition to a standard to receive an insensitive munition for shipboard certification, he said.

Marine Corps Commandant Lt. Gen. Robert Neller echoed Lukeman, telling a crowd at I/ITSEC that the normal training procedure is to send a Marine unit to Twentynine Palms in California or to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. "We go out there with our junk and our iron, we put it out there, we deploy thousands of Marines, we do ranges, we do live-fire because we feel that gives us the best feel."

Then a commander gets to run his unit through a range, Neller said, which usually takes about an hour and a half. "They get one shot live-fire and they'll probably never get another shot again the rest of their lives," he said. "I've always found that very unsatisfying. . . . How can I run a range 100 times? … There's got to be a way to do that."

The biggest advance for the Marine Corps in developing augmented virtual reality training is a project it calls Augmented Immersive Team Training (AITT), Col. Walt Yates, Marine Corps program manager for training systems (PM TRASYS), told Defense News at I/ITSEC.

AITT began in the Office of Naval Research (ONR) at the end of 2009, Yates said, in order to find a way for dismounted troops to have something they could wear on their body that provides elements of virtual reality. "Things that we can't replicate with physical models, such as enemy aircraft and vehicles and dismounts," will appear in their field of view, behave realistically and provide information for a small unit to make tactical decisions, he added.

The Marine Corps thought it was particularly important to develop simulated training solutions for the Marines on the ground because such simulations are the most difficult it's the hardest to replicate what Marines they will see on the battlefield using solely virtual reality, according to Yates.

ONR's program validated many important concepts, he said, but the systems were still somewhat cumbersome for the Marines testing them, who jokingly referred to the wearable devices as "ghostbusters backpacks," Yates said.

In October, the Marine Corps tested out its AITT solution at Quantico in Virginia. Lockheed Martin, SRI International and the University of Central Florida are all a part of the development effort.

Lockheed's advanced technology director Atul Patel told reporters touring its new Innovation Demonstration Center here last week that the company was able to demonstrate at Quantico a simulated call-for-fire scenario where a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) out in the field, looking through a screen, could see enemy vehicles, dismounted troops and aircraft flying overhead. When fire was called in, explosions could be seen on the screen overlaying the real landscape.

AITT is now moving toward becoming a program of record, Yates said. The first step has been to transfer the effort from ONR to his office, he noted.

Yates said PM TRASYS will now mature the technology to a higher level. The Marines who tested AITT believe the prototype is ready to use as it is and so the Corps' initial fielding will be to provide copies of the prototype to more units to try out. "That will help us gather data on how to improve it," he said.

The first prototypes will be sent in January to an infantry company that specifically requested the systems. The unit recently deployed to Okinawa, Japan, and will receive the systems to and train with them there, according to Yates.

After collecting enough data from further testing, the Marine Corps will put out a request for proposals asking industry to submit solutions on how to continue to miniaturize the system, make it more rugged, increase the battery life, achieve higher screen resolution and make it generally less cumbersome for the Marine, according to Yates.

"So instead of wearing a simulation, it will be more and more like wearing combat gear … it becomes a part of what they are going to wear anyway," he said.

Additionally, the Marines would like an augmented virtual reality system that can operate using a wireless network at farther ranges and one that enables systems to tie together "so you could have multiple observers at multiple locations all seeing the same thing," Yates said.

Still, it will be a long time before the training device might make it to out to every Marine, Yates said. "We will want to make this very mature, very small and compact and drive down the cost quite a bit." For now the focus will remain on Marines whose tasks require them to be visual sensors for indirect fire, he added.

The AITT is important, Yates said, "not only because it drives down the cost but it allows us to train for things that are very difficult. When you think of mortar or artillery training against a moving target, you almost never get a chance to do that."

Mike Blades, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, expects augmented reality training to outpace a full virtual reality approach. "Augmented reality simply lends itself to more realistic training and is more compatible with live virtual constructive structures." LVC combines a mix of live and virtual training.

"It's just that right now technology favors virtual reality because it is relatively simple to program video game-like scenarios on an enclosed goggle," Blades said. "The difficulty comes when a goggle has to provide augmented reality overlays that interact with live situations. Technology will advance quickly in the area allowing augmented reality to surpass virtual reality in the next five to 20 years."

Email: jjudson@defensenews.com

Twitter: @JenJudson

Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.

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