ARLINGTON, Va. — The first iteration of the Army’s virtual training environment is in the hands of some troops, giving an early glimpse of the tool’s promise to reshape the way soldiers prepare for combat.

The Synthetic Training Environment brings together live and virtual training environments, aiming to deliver accessible exercises that mimic the full complexity of the physical world.

“Training is the one asymmetric advantage that we have over our adversaries,” said Brig. Gen. William Glaser, director of the Synthetic Training Environment Cross-Functional Team within Army Futures Command. “We need to make sure that we are using all the technology advances that are out there in industry today to transform our fighting force.”

It will take some years for all the pieces of the Synthetic Training Environment, or STE, to come together. The environment eventually will host detailed and ever-updating models of fighting terrains across the globe, along with a vast repository of training scenarios.

In the meantime, some soldiers are training with the first version, with more widespread deployment of the iteration anticipated in 2022. Known as the Squad Immersive Virtual Trainer, or SIVT, the version offers an accessible way for soldiers to train using a fighting goggle that mixes simulated images with soldiers’ view of their surroundings.

Anywhere, anytime

The SIVT training software is deployed through the goggle known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System. Together they immerse the soldier in a simulated fighting situation that is available on demand, from any location.

“This allows the soldier to rehearse before actually going into a fight,” said Joe Parson, an expert assigned to the STE Cross-Functional Team. “That is going to have a huge impact, when you can get the sets and reps necessary to do your war-fighting mission well in advance.”

The virtual nature of the training means that soldiers will have more opportunities to hone their skills, participating in the same exercises multiple times with minimal setup needed. The portable headset makes it easier for the Army to make training available at the point of need.

“We have to be able to deliver this training capability to where the soldiers are, vice bringing the soldiers to the training,” Glaser said. “A soldier ought to be able to go to the motor pool in the morning, and later in the day be able to just flip a switch and be immersed in this synthetic environment and training — with his crew, with his platoon, with another company — right there in the motor pool.”

Outdoor scenarios next

Looking ahead, military planners want to develop an augmented reality version of the training. In this iteration, soldiers would be able to go outdoors and fire simulated weapons at simulated enemies hidden among real-world trees and buildings.

“We intend to scale this up to the battalion and brigade levels — not doing it just in a synthetic environment, but using it in a live environment, indoor and outdoor, day and night,” Glaser said.

Some technological advances will need to occur for that to happen.

“Imagine the sensors pick up a glint of light at noontime on a tree leaf, as opposed to 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the same tree leaf — and the tree leaf is blowing around,” Parson said. Realistic training would require a level of machine intelligence that could depict that action with a high degree of accuracy.

“We are creating an environment that is physics-based; it’s realistic. If you were to shoot at that tree or at a building or a glass window, it would act like it’s actually been shot,” Parson said. “There are still some technology challenges that have to be worked through in both the hardware and the software. But there is some great work being done on this.”

Sensors and cameras are improving all the time, as are the algorithms that help the software to make sense of that data, he said.

As all this comes together, the STE will bring a higher-than-ever level of realism to virtual training, while simultaneously making that training more readily accessible.

“This is not to say that this will ever completely replace live training. There is no substitute for that,” Parson said. “But we can give commanders options, which in turn increases their readiness. The STE is all about creating as many training opportunities for them as possible.”

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