By Dr. Alix Valenti
In their book “The ultimate battleground: fighting and winning in the city” (L’ultime champ de bataille: combattre et vaincre en ville), authors Frédérique Chamaud and Pierre Santoni put significant emphasis on the importance of joint forces combat in a battleground that is fast changing. No longer confined to vast spaces, the 21st century main battleground is the city, which complex fabric has turned distinguishing friend from foe, civilian from combatant, into a particularly challenging task. In this context, joint forces combat not only facilitates coordination between forces on the ground and air support, but also contributes to limiting casualties.
The preparation required for this new battleground therefore demands that the forces train in an environment that reproduces these complexities in a way that is as close to the reality as possible. However, “conducting live training is expensive,” said W. Garth Smith, President and co-founder of MetaVR, thus putting significant pressure on companies developing desktop training (DTT) solutions to offer products that allow to cut costs without losing training quality.
“As budgets tightened and the need for more close air support/joint fires simulated training continues to grow, the need for near replication of a real-world close air support training environment also increases such that the transition from the virtual environment to real world training range or theatre/area of conflict is not jarring and disorienting,” Smith continued. To this end, the companies that provide armed forces with their training equipment work closely with their customers to provide DTT solutions that carefully balance hardware and software.
For James Ohlman, technical program manager at Pinnacle Solutions, a company delivering training products on aviation mission equipment, “that means that we involve our customers at every possible opportunity to demonstrate progress and get feedback on the product [because] if a student becomes quickly frustrated when using a training system then their focus becomes that frustration, rather than the learning objectives of the system,” said Ohlman. Pinnacle Solutions offers a wide range of products to the armed forces, from a traditional interactive multimedia instruction (IMI)-based desktop training to a hybrid hardware/software solution that allows students to both manipulate physical components, in order to familiarize themselves with the tools, and perform maintenance tasks in a virtual environment. This also includes integrating touchscreens to the system, which have become highly popular for their low cost and high interaction ratio.
MetaVR has also been working with its customers since 2009, when it started developing a Virtual Reality Scene Generator (VRSG) to complement the U.S Air National Guard JTACs’ own desktop-based close air support training.
This was then further developed, in collaboration with Battlespace Simulations (BSI), to provide a JTAC simulation system for the Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command and Air Support Operation Squadron. “The features of the subsequent MetaVR/Battlespace Simulations’ (BSI) JTAC desktop simulator are based on numerous interviews with JTAC trainers,” Smith said.
In terms of hardware, MetaVR/BSI JTAC desktop simulators include an instructor operator station, a pilot/role player station, and JTAC trainee stations, which are all equipped with two software. MetaVR’s VRSG provides the out-the-window views, views from a monocular/binocular used for later range finding as well as target designation complete with a simulated laser range finder, and a full motion video ROVER-type sensor feed for external targeting information. BSI’s Modern Air Combat Environment (MACE) software, on the other hand, allows the instructor to control all constructive entities (including attacking aircraft and artillery) as well as ground entities and threats. “MetaVR also provides a Combined Arms Virtual Environment (CAVE) training dome and desktop systems for the simulation portion of the JTAC qualification course at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center,” Smith continued.
In order to bridge the gap between the training environment and the real world training range or theatre of conflict, “military hardware and battle management systems that are used in the field during battles can be simulated with both live and virtual data,” said Pete Morrison, Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) co-CEO. This is what BISim achieved by, for instance, integrating the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) for the U.S Marine Corps to the company’s Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3): “equipment used in the field for real conflicts can be connected to virtual training systems that enable trainees to practice on actual equipment in a simulated battle exercise,” Morrison continued.
VBS3 functions as a game engine, with desktop computers running the latest game- based software that facilitates tactical training and mission rehearsal. Using VBS Gateway, VBS3 can connect multiple simulation clients together via its HLA/DIS/CIGI connectivity, as well as offer trainees live loading, user-friendly configuration capabilities, a real-time user interface and performance enhancement. The VBS radio, on the other hand, enables radio and direct voice communications between users in VBS3 training exercises. Amongst its key features, VBS radio includes a wide range of channels, 3D directional voice capability, automatic access to vehicle intercom systems and squad radio net, and the use of an audio tone played when users transmit on channels.
“Close air support simulation training exercises require vast geospecific terrain with a high degree of realism at both very high altitude down to the ground level, and the ability for the IG to handle terrain and present it accurately from air to ground, with believable detailed ground level activity,” said Smith. Indeed, as armed forces prepare for missions that take place in increasingly complex environments, there is a need to ensure that DTT solutions offer not only the highest quality in terms of image generation (IG), but also that the images and scenarios available in the training package come as close to the reality as possible.
The VRSG running on the MetaVR/BSI desktop JTAC simulator provides real-time 60 Hz visuals for scenes displayed on desktop monitors or projected on large wall-mounted screens or immersive domes, HD streaming video of simulated sensor feed from a UAV or other air asset, and simulated military equipment, such as laser range finder and target designator devices. A significant amount of work goes into the development of the scenes, in particular, because “a credible JTAC simulation includes both manned aircraft and UAVs, operating at distances and altitudes where earth curvature is a factor in accurate line-of-sight calculations,” according to Smith. As such, MetaVR’s model library currently includes over 6,600 models of high-resolution, round-earth 3D geospecific terrain and 3D models.
BISim’s VBS3 has a database of terrains stretching for thousands of kilometers in size, which can be used as a basis for developers and trainers to develop situations for training troops for larger maneuvers. The collection of high-fidelity environments is developed by TerraSim, a BISim company, using a variety of input cartographic data and imagery, and is offered as a TerraTools 5 package, which includes destructible buildings, bridges and tunnels.
Additionally, VBS3 was also conceived to reduce memory consumption, often one of the main reasons behind slow running software, through the use of on-the-fly procedural generation for the generation of its scenes’ biotopes, which include elements such as grouping of trees, rocks and bodies of water. “Terrain features are created by the engine as they are needed rather than storing billions of objects with other terrain data,” according to the company.
Pinnacle Solutions uses the Unity3D engine for the development of its virtual environments. Unity3D engine works with a revenue sharing model much more appropriate to the unique customer-driven development of Pinnacle Solutions’ DTTs, in that it is easy to learn and therefore facilitates the task of finding developers that can work with it. The content of the virtual training tools has continued to improve and evolve over the last few years, not only because it can render increasingly higher-fidelity content, but also because Pinnacle Solutions spends “a lot of time on the modeling and animation of aircraft components to be sure that the virtual environment is accurate and immersive for the students,” said Ohlman.
“As the networking services expand and become more modular, the demands of the simulation may exceed the computing resources that are available locally,” Morrison indicated, thus “the logical next step is scaling past those limitations and take advantage of cloud computing infrastructure.” Networking is not only key in facilitating storage and, therefore, training at a distance if needed; it is also an increasingly fundamental tool for facilitating training amongst different entities based in different places.
For instance, the VBS Gateway for VBS3, which allows HLA/DIS and CIGI connectivity, automatically connects to other VBS Gateway clients out of the box with no configuration changes. It also allows customer freedom to move between DIS/HLA and to join different exercises and federations while in the middle of a scenario and without having to leave the mission. “VBS3 can now be deployed in a cloud environment using virtual desktops with NVIDIA GRID, and all of the new technology being developed by BISim is cloud-enabled,” Morrison concluded.
Similarly, MetaVR’s VRSG uses the DIS protocol to enable the customer to run exercises with up to 100,000 entities while maintaining real-time performance. “It is interoperable with commonly used semi-automated forces (SAF) and other DIS-compliant applications by rendering entities three-dimensionally and providing positional feedback information and user control visually on the 2D display” the company said.
Pinnacle Solutions, on the other hand, has so far not developed cloud-based versions of its DTT solutions for the armed forces. “Our Department of Defense customers still want to host all their content locally,” said Ohlman, although he expects this mentality “to change over the next few years as cloud-based computing continues to be adopted by the government.”
Military added value
Already in 2008, a paper published for the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), ‘Games – Just how serious are they?’ presented some strong evidence that serious game technology, on which much of the graphic technology used for the virtual reality of DTTs is based, “is an effective means to meet a wide variety of tactical training requirements.” While there were some initial concerns that DTTs and their continuously improved virtual reality would eventually come to replace live training, the research indicated that, “[game technology needs] to be included as part of blended training solutions that can cost- effectively meet the psycho-motor and affective training requirements as well.”
The Naval Education and Training Command (NETC), for instance, has fully embraced this new technology. Training is delivered through the Virtual Training System (VTS), a system which combines classic methodologies of individual, cooperative and collaborative learning with virtual reality to provide students with “a multitude of experiences or interactive immersive learning/ training modules on a variety of devices, such as desktops, tablets and smart phones,” said Lieutenant Commander Kate Meadows, NETC public affairs officer. The NETC also developed a Virtual Desktop Initiative (VDI), which facilitates the reconfiguration of classroom computers, and the Virtual School House (VSH), which includes a virtual classroom and a virtual laboratory.
A significant part of the appeal of the new generation of DTT solutions, is that is has evolved together with a new generation of service men and women who have grown up using this type of technology and, for the latest generations entering the force, have also grown up using computers as a learning tool in the classroom. As such, it responds to a generational change, as noted in “The U.S Army Learning Concept for 2015,” a U.S Army Training and Doctrine Command document published in January 2011 outlining the doctrine the U.S Army will apply to train and educate its soldiers and leaders: “The Army must challenge and inspire learners who have grown up in a digital world, are adept at using technology, demand relevance, and require feedback and support from peers and mentors.” For Pinnacle Solutions this is a key component of product development as they work to design virtual products “to use practices common in video games to leverage this familiarity with games and gaming to make [their] products relatable to the end-user,” said Ohlman.
The new generation of DTT solutions also “allows for much more flexibility than a traditional classroom,” Ohlman continued. “Being able to instruct and then demonstrate or have students practice concepts can take learning from a theoretical exercise to practical instruction, which will promote positive habit transfer and lead to a better training outcome,” he concluded.
As the technology behind virtual reality continues to improve, the industry expects that some of the major developments regarding DTTs will focus on providing training solutions that accurately reflect the type of complexities of today’s battlefield. MetaVR, for instance, as if to echo the findings of Frédérique Chamaud and Pierre Santoniin in their book on war in the city space, has worked to develop high fidelity 3D virtual representations of a number of cities in Africa (Djibouti City, Nairobi, Kismayo, Cairo and Cape Town), Asia (Afghanistan and Baghdad) and Europe (such as Kiev, Sarajevo, Moscow and Amsterdam).
To accompany these virtual realities, and continue to reduce cost while improving training, it will also become key to improve the hardware associated with the software. As Morrison indicated, “where today’s high-end simulators rely on large and expensive display environments using domes and collimated displays, emerging training systems will benefit from off-the-shelf head mounted displays (HMD) that are not only several orders of magnitude less expensive than current displays but also provide higher resolution, a smaller training footprint and high portability.”