Magazine article National Defense

Gaming Technology Puts Soldiers' Boots on Ground

Magazine article National Defense

Gaming Technology Puts Soldiers' Boots on Ground

Article excerpt

* As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Army will be pouring resources into keeping soldiers trained for whatever comes next.

Any training the service can do in a low-cost virtual setting will be a bonus during what is expected to be a cash-strapped decade for the military.

The Army increasingly is turning to the commercial video game industry to create higher fidelity, less expensive and more portable simulations. It turns out that the same technology behind games that pit superhumans against aliens can also help teach soldiers how to conduct a variety of tactical operations.

"We're not buying Medal of Honor per se, but the engine that drives games like that," says Fran Fierko, deputy project manager for the Army's combined arms tactical trainers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a new product the Army will roll out early next year. The service will pay $57 million to Intelligent Decisions Inc. to develop the Dismounted Soldier Training System, a set-up that can transform any empty room into a 360-degree virtual combat zone. The service plans to distribute more than 100 Dismounted Soldier trainers to various locations, including to the National Guard. The first two systems will be sent to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., in January for user assessments.

Aviators and tank operators have long been using simulators to sharpen their skills Now, after several years of research, the Army is bringing dismounted troops into the virtual world.

"They haven't had anything for the guy with his boots on the ground, the guy on the streets of Afghanistan clearing buildings," says Floyd West, Intelligent Decisions' lead on the program.

Dismounted Soldier employs the CryEngine gaming technology behind Crysis 2, a sci-fi first-person shooter in which the main character fights off extraterrestrials in a futuristic New York City. The original Crysis game featured a U.S. special operator battling otherworldly beings on an island off the Philippines. The influence of these games is taking military simulation far beyond the days when the Pentagon relied on companies to churn out image generators at market-driving rates.

"In the past, you've had prime contractors building image generators to run databases and produce the images we see in a virtual environment," West says. "Now we have faster, better, cheaper computers and they're building faster, better, cheaper gaming technology."

Dismounted Soldier allows up to nine soldiers to participate at once. Each wears sensors, carries a replica of his weapon and views the action through a helmet mounted display. Each has a 10-foot-by-10-foot pad on which to stand, duck and dive. A headset immerses them in the 3-D surround sounds of war. Squad and platoon leaders can sit at desktop computers to monitor the whole exercise, which requires just 1,600 square feet.

The Army began investigating virtual technologies for dismounted soldiers in 1999 when the Program Executive Office for simulation, training and instrumentation participated in a four-year study on the matter. PEO STRI has since instituted a Games-for-Training (GFT) strategy, which aims to take advantage of commercial technology as often as possible.

"We plan to test the market every five years or so," says Leslie Dubow, the Army's project director for GFT.

In addition to the Dismounted Soldier order, the Army is conducting market research on video gaming technologies for a first-person shooter that can replace or improve its flagship game to train individual soldiers and small units. The service currently uses Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2), which offers the ability to operate land, sea and air vehicles in various scenarios via realistic simulations. PEO STRI is looking for a system that offers everything VBS2 does, plus higher fidelity graphics and the ability for it to be plugged into a combined live, virtual and constructive training environment through the use of personal computers and other mobile devices. …

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