Magazine article National Defense

Defense Simulation Firms Turn to Commercial Sector for Inspiration

Magazine article National Defense

Defense Simulation Firms Turn to Commercial Sector for Inspiration

Article excerpt


Military simulations were once leaps and bounds ahead of the technologies available in the commercial market. Now, as millions of Americans own video game consoles that showcase high fidelity graphics and state-of-the-art hardware and software, that is hardly the case.

With near-term military simulation procurement uncertain, defense contractors are eyeing the commercial sector for potential fixes to looming headaches.

Industry executives want inexpensive off-the-shelf products that cut costs and can be integrated in military simulations. They also hope they can transfer decades of virtual training expertise to markets such as health care and transportation, which are seeking new modeling and simulation technologies.

The military training and simulation industry will take a hit during the fiscal downturn of the next decade, but the impact will be less severe than other defense sectors, said Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. He projects the training and simulation market will decrease by 5 percent over the next five to 10 years, compared to the 7 to 10 percent decline likely to be experienced by the unmanned aerial vehicle and helicopter markets.

Government funding for simulation research and development is likely to shrink during that time period, leaving companies financially responsible for driving innovation, he told National Defense. Traditional defense contractors will continue to partner with commercial firms in order to get the newest technologies without having to spend their internal research, development, testing and evaluation dollars.

"Why spend the money on researching [how to develop] your own system when someone already has [developed] it?" Blades asked. "Nobody wants to take all the risk. ... Why would a Lockheed Martin or a Northrop Grumman spend all the money on RDT&F when they can come in with a partner?"

Several new startup companies in the video game industry have already received attention from military simulation companies.

For example, Virtuix has not finalized its product design for the Omni, a treadmill-like platform that reduces the amount of space needed to conduct a scenario in virtual reality, but prototype versions are already in use by defense contractors, said Colton Jacobs, product manager.

BAE Systems, tor instance, is developing a virtual reality simulator for infantry that employs the Omni alongside Virtual Bat-tlespace 3, the flagship video game in the Army's Games for Training lineup, be said in an interview.

The Omni solves a problem common in both commercial and military virtual reality systems. Sensor technology used to track a user's movements are relatively mature, but they are confined to the boundaries of the room they are playing in. One can only run so far in-game before they literally hit a wall in the practice space.

Virtuix plans on developing a military version of the Omni that would accommodate the size and weight of a fully equipped soldier, Jacobs said.

"The military version would have different kinds of support systems to allow for a soldier to wear his entire gear set while doing training, because right now it's a little bit limited in terms of what I can wear on my body," he said. It would also allow for more freedom of movement, such as being able to crouch.

To break into the military simulation industry, commercial video game companies must appeal to software developers though innovative, cost-saving technologies, said Joseph Chen, senior product manager for Oculus VR. Oculus VR created a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift for the gaming industry. A finalized device isn't expected until at least 2014.

The Oculus Rift is not yet in the hands of troops, but prototype versions have been incorporated into scenarios, game engines and hardware developed by Northrop Grumman and Havok, Chen said. …

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