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Companies Offer Cheaper Simulation Tools to Military 


By Valerie Insinna 

As the Defense Department looks for more cost-effective ways to train its soldiers, the simulation industry has responded by promoting cheaper technology with roots in entertainment gaming.

Oculus VR debuted its new virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, at a simulation conference last December.

The device is aimed primarily at entertainment gaming, but the company is interested in moving into military simulation, said Joseph Chen, Oculus’s senior product manager.

“Part of this is getting in front of folks that have a much higher expectation of what a VR [virtual reality] should look like, as opposed to a gamer whose last experience in VR was probably at an arcade,” he said. “We need to understand what they need, what they want, and then start making those relationships if we are going to have any kind of activities in this area.”

Oculus Rift had a modest start. After being funded through donations made on Kickstarter, the project gradually picked up support from video game industry heavyweights such as Valve Corp., which produces popular series such as Portal and Half-Life.

 The headset could be used for military applications where high resolution is not as important, such as some flight simulators or a virtual patrol to find improvised explosive devices, Chen said. 

“This is a $300 development kit. There’s no way that we can realistically expect that this is going to be as high a resolution as some of these multi-thousand dollar systems, so we do have a lower resolution.”

But because of the lower cost point, it can be more broadly used by the military, he added, allowing more soldiers to be trained more quickly, and with more repetitions.

The prototype is a combination of high and low technology — Chen acknowledged the headset on display used cardboard and duct tape to hold together a smartphone screen, which acts as a display, and a lens.

A tracking cable links the device to a desktop computer, where software distorts the images so that the player feels he is immersed in a 3-D environment. A motion sensor in the headset allows the player to look around his surroundings, and a game controller is used to move.

“There’s not actually a whole lot new to the world about this hardware, it’s just a new implementation,” Chen said.

Larger defense contractors are also seeing the benefits of using products already available in the commercial space.

Northrop Grumman’s Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) holodeck uses commercial-off-the-shelf projectors and Kinect, a motion sensor for the Xbox 360.

“The biggest thing that separates us, I think, is going to be our cost point,” said Ryan Frost, a modeling and simulation senior programmer for Northrop Grumman. VIPE costs less than $500,000, while the industry standard price for similar technologies is more than $1 million, he added.

Photo Credit: Oculus VR
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