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Soldiers learn hazards of war in virtual reality.

The U.S. Army is testing the utility of a web-based training technology that lets soldiers share their combat experiences with troops preparing to deploy.

The so-called "asymmetric warfare virtual training technology" is the military version of the widely popular multiplayer online role-playing games. Run from central servers, these are continuously operating virtual worlds that allow players to enter and leave at will.

The goal is a 24/7 training environment, where a potentially unlimited numbers of soldiers could exchange valuable information that otherwise would be learned the hard way--fighting house-to-house in Iraq. Instead of overseas units having to return to the United States to pass on their experience, they can teach their hard-won lessons over the Internet.

National Guardsmen preparing to deploy to Iraq, for example, would log into a checkpoint scenario. While the Guardsmen stand duty at the virtual checkpoint, experienced soldiers already in Iraq would connect into the virtual world and play the part of civilians and insurgents. "They will learn, if a woman comes up to a checkpoint and she has a baby and a bag, here's how you handle it," said Jim Grosse, principal investigator for the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command in Orlando, Fla.

The accessibility of the system--users just need a computer and an Internet connection--means civilians in Iraq and elsewhere could be recruited to play the role of civilians in the game. Army units would be exposed to authentic training, rather than trying to learn from American soldiers and civilians awkwardly pretending to be Iraqis. AW-VTT would also be useful for joint training of coalition forces.

"The avatars are very realistic-looking," Grosse said. "You can tell they're breathing. There are facial motions, so you can tell your avatar to smile. When a soldier knocks on a door to search a house, the civilian can show emotion. There is no Army simulation out there today that does that."

Grosse said it's even possible that a soldier's physical qualification scores, from Army Knowledge Online, could be fed into a virtual world where a soldier's avatar will have the qualities of his flesh-and-blood counterpart. "If you can run an eight-minute mile, that will be the fastest your avatar can go," he said.

Beyond its training value, a virtual world might be cheaper to run than other military training simulations. A big problem with many current products is their lack of artificial intelligence, which means that large numbers of human controllers are needed to give orders to the enemy units or civilian crowds.

The asymmetric warfare virtual training technology, or AW-VTT, may get around this by importing artificial intelligence routines from the OneSAF (semi-automated forces) program. But even better, the opposing force can be controlled by humans who could be in the next building or on the other side of the world. "You don't need all those battle simulation centers around the country," Grosse said. "It's all in one location that everyone can log into."

The simulation--Grosse is careful not to call it a game--will have helicopters and vehicles. It will be able to import actual maps from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Grosse foresees AV-WTT transitioning over to other programs, such as the soldier combined arms tactical trainer and virtual emergency response training. He also believes it could be used for homeland security training. "This is just a possibility, but we could have a few thousand civilians role-play people in New York," said Grosse.

AV-WTT will cost $6 million over four years, according to Grosse. Research and development command just signed a two-year contract with Forterra Inc., the San Mateo, Calif.-based developer of engines for online entertainment games, as well as AV-WTT. The Army simulation is about half-complete. However, it is advanced enough that it is being tested with the 101st Airborne Division.

Last June, an Illinois National Guard artillery battalion briefly played AW-VTT. The 2/123 Field Artillery Battalion, which was deploying to Iraq, had a chance to simulate checkpoint operations. "They had no experience with military police operations. It really opened their eyes as to what they might face there," Grosse said.

Guardsmen manned a virtual checkpoint, while the simulation's developers played civilians and terrorists. "We had a couple of us role-play terrorists," Grosse recalled. "We jumped out of the car, drew our weapons and tried to assault the checkpoint. It was amazing how quickly they shot us."

Capt. James Kondrat, the battalion's intelligence officer, said that when his battalion first saw AW-VTT, "we weren't sure what to make of it." But they quickly learned that a virtual training world could be helpful to soldiers unused to the stresses of running checkpoints in a Middle Eastern country.

"When I was trying it out, a woman drove up in a [virtual] car," Kondrat recalled. "Normally, you'd tell them to please step out of the car and lie down on the ground. But this was supposed to be a Muslim country, and having a Muslim female lie on the ground in front of a soldier wasn't such a great idea. I never thought of that until the situation happened in the game."

AW-VTT isn't as appealing graphically as the latest entertainment software, said Kondrat, who spoke to National Defense by telephone from Iraq. But nor is AW-VTT a combat simulator, so it doesn't need spiffy graphics, Kondrat added. Its value lies in making soldiers think, and in enhancing their situational awareness. "It doesn't need to look super-realistic. It needs to be good enough that you can see that the person is wearing a veil."

What a virtual world does best is to expose soldiers to a different landscape, with different people and languages, Kondrat said. "These are not things you see around the armory."
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Title Annotation:Upfront
Author:Peck, Michael
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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