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Military Videogames Could Migrate to Smartphones

ORLANDO – Suppliers of military simulations and videogames see an opportunity for growth in the burgeoning smartphone market. 

Companies should be adapting their training and simulation software products to handheld devices, said the industry keynote speaker at the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. “Today's handheld mobile devices can be tailored to individual missions and provide just-in-time training with up-to-date data and resources,” said LeAnn Ridgeway, vice president and general manager at Rockwell Collins Simulation and Training Solutions. “Our forces are used to living their daily lives with the ability to plug and play. We must bring these same capabilities to their training environments.”

There are a multitude of mobile training devices on display here, from simulation equipment that can be transported in vans down to smartphones. A competition at the conference features an entire category devoted to mobile “serious” games. One teaches crew members on an iPhone how to operate a vehicle carrying a surface-to-air missile system. Another, called the Mobile M.O.U.T (Military Operations on Urban Terrain), uses the Android to teach players the correct technique for using a tactical squad to clear a room.

Alion Science and Technology has developed several apps for the Android, including the Mobile M.O.U.T., that is designed for rehearsal of tactical missions.

Smartphones are handy, but also limited in their capabilities to run advanced gaming technology, said Lee Lacy, director of science and technology for Dynamics Research Corp.'s readiness and training division.

DRC and others are focusing on how to use handheld devices during the stages before service members enter a gaming or simulation environment.

The company recently created user interfaces for instructors and students for more than 90 training support packages for the Army. Soldiers are depicted as if in a comic book, talking out a variety of tasks, everything from how to handle situations with improvised explosive devices to conducting artillery raids. Some tasks come with video, including one that shows students how to use smoke when breaching on obstacle. The scenes are read before trainees move on to performing the actions in the Army's Virtual Battlespace 2 gaming environment.

A similar system is available for iPads, which would allow students to train up on dozens of operational tasks on their own time.

“Soldiers learn continually,” said James Blake, the Army's program executive officer for simulation, training and instrumentation. “It's not a process of going through skill qualification school and that's the end of your training.” Physical space and official training schedules are limited throughout the military. “So when the soldier is available for the training, you'd like the training to be available for the soldier.”

This concept is carrying over into flight simulators as well. Lockheed Martin's trainer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter employs a laptop computer for the initial classroom stages. Students at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will use throttles with the same number of buttons and switches as the real aircraft while keeping track of the action on the computer screen.

“When I went to training we were given an arm full of workbooks,” said Lou “Spanky” Olinto, senior business manager at Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics. “Now, there is no more paper. We give them a laptop." Students will start using the F-35 trainer in early 2012.

“Mobile training is a very rich and growing area,” said Keith Catanzano, vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “Is it because of gaming? Maybe. Maybe it's because of Steve Jobs. Maybe it's because the price point is coming down. I could make an argument for any one of those.”

The bottom line is that it reaches service members through familiar means at times convenient for them, Catanzano said.

It is still not clear how cost-effective smartphones are, compared to laptops or tablets. Many of the high-end mobile devices here on display cost less than $1,000. Tablets could be used to do more immersive, map-based training, experts said, while phones work great for cognitive exercises and lower-end activities that focus more on decision-making. The phones are also useful for getting rid of paperwork. Service members can pull up manuals and data whenever they need it, they said.

Smartphones eventually will be able to handle the gaming engines that are driving a lot of military simulations these days, experts said.

“We’ve seen computer rooms reduced to a few cabinets the size of refrigerators,” Ridgeway said, “down to where we are today — personal computer-based solutions with those capabilities rapidly being reduced to the size of handheld devices. One can only imagine where technology advances might lead us in the future.”

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