Gaming Technology Puts Soldiers’ Boots on Ground

By Eric Beidel
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Army will be pouring resources into keeping soldiers trained for whatever comes next.

Any training the service can do in a low-cost virtual setting will be a bonus during what is expected to be a cash-strapped decade for the military.

The Army increasingly is turning to the commercial video game industry to create higher fidelity, less expensive and more portable simulations. It turns out that the same technology behind games that pit superhumans against aliens can also help teach soldiers how to conduct a variety of tactical operations.

“We’re not buying Medal of Honor per se, but the engine that drives games like that,” says Fran Fierko, deputy project manager for the Army’s combined arms tactical trainers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a new product the Army will roll out early next year. The service will pay $57 million to Intelligent Decisions Inc. to develop the Dismounted Soldier Training System, a set-up that can transform any empty room into a 360-degree virtual combat zone. The service plans to distribute more than 100 Dismounted Soldier trainers to various locations, including to the National Guard. The first two systems will be sent to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., in January for user assessments.

Aviators and tank operators have long been using simulators to sharpen their skills. Now, after several years of research, the Army is bringing dismounted troops into the virtual world.

“They haven’t had anything for the guy with his boots on the ground, the guy on the streets of Afghanistan clearing buildings,” says Floyd West, Intelligent Decisions’ lead on the program.

Dismounted Soldier employs the CryEngine gaming technology behind Crysis 2, a sci-fi first-person shooter in which the main character fights off extraterrestrials in a futuristic New York City. The original Crysis game featured a U.S. special operator battling otherworldly beings on an island off the Philippines. The influence of these games is taking military simulation far beyond the days when the Pentagon relied on companies to churn out image generators at market-driving rates.

“In the past, you’ve had prime contractors building image generators to run databases and produce the images we see in a virtual environment,” West says. “Now we have faster, better, cheaper computers and they’re building faster, better, cheaper gaming technology.”

Dismounted Soldier allows up to nine soldiers to participate at once. Each wears sensors, carries a replica of his weapon and views the action through a helmet-mounted display. Each has a 10-foot-by- 10-foot pad on which to stand, duck and dive. A headset immerses them in the 3-D surround sounds of war. Squad and platoon leaders can sit at desktop computers to monitor the whole exercise, which requires just 1,600 square feet.

The Army began investigating virtual technologies for dismounted soldiers in 1999 when the Program Executive Office for simulation, training and instrumentation participated in a four-year study on the matter. PEO STRI has since instituted a Games-for-Training (GFT) strategy, which aims to take advantage of commercial technology as often as possible.

“We plan to test the market every five years or so,” says Leslie Dubow, the Army’s project director for GFT.

In addition to the Dismounted Soldier order, the Army is conducting market research on video gaming technologies for a first-person shooter that can replace or improve its flagship game to train individual soldiers and small units. The service currently uses Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2), which offers the ability to operate land, sea and air vehicles in various scenarios via realistic simulations. PEO STRI is looking for a system that offers everything VBS2 does, plus higher fidelity graphics and the ability for it to be plugged into a combined live, virtual and constructive training environment through the use of personal computers and other mobile devices.

Intelligent Decisions plans to be a major player in this effort as it already has shown the ability to run the VBS2 software on the Dismounted Soldier system.

A recent Army solicitation for the games initiative seeks technologies that allow users to generate custom battle scenarios that cover necessary skills and run the gamut of full-spectrum operations, from cultural awareness and language to recognition and defeat of improvised explosive devices. The service could spend as much as $25 million over five years on software and licensing for one or more commercial games, according to the solicitation.

“The gaming solution must portray the political, military, economic, social, informational and infrastructural conditions and associated 2-D and higher order effects of decision-making relative to those conditions,” it states.

The gaming industry has a lot to offer the Army, says Dubow, including faster video cards and the ability to accommodate massive amounts of players.

VBS2 plays an important role by providing a ubiquitous, low-cost training system for kinetic and non-kinetic skills. Soldiers use it to practice missions and hone team effectiveness, communications and decision-making abilities, Dubow says. But the Army is always looking for better graphics, increased ease of use and larger terrain boxes, or the visual space in which activity can take place.

“We will squeeze as much capability as we can out of the flagship for five years, or as resources allow, and then test the market for new technology,” she says.

The CryEngine technology used in Dismounted Soldier helps create precise images and sounds in an effort to make troops feel as if they were in battle at a specific location. But Intelligent Decisions, its partners and the Army are quick to note that they are not building a video game.

“We’re leveraging that technology,” West says. “We have to add realism on top of it.”
Intelligent Decisions sought input from a subject matter expert who had been involved in more than 20 firefights and 50 missions while imbedded with the Afghan National Army.

“We brought him in to make sure the system was as real as possible,” West says. “The first time I showed this to him, he said he was having flashbacks it was so real.”

The virtual system accommodates several operational themes, including major combat, irregular warfare, peacetime engagements and civil support. Soldiers can use it to practice clearing a suspicious building or an assault on a small village. Leaders can correct their mistakes by replaying critical events from the exercise and viewing them from different perspectives.

“We can set up various scenarios they may want to train on,” West says. “We have the whole Army list of training tasks.”

The system allows soldiers to identify sounds, pinpointing the exact kinds of weapons, trucks, tanks and cars that they hear. It also does not protect the soldier’s avatar from injury. It can be hurt by direct and indirect fire — bullets, grenades and IEDs. And those injuries are simulated to take accurate tolls on the fighters.

“In the virtual world, visuals mean everything,” Fierko says, and Dismounted Soldier can recreate the movement of ground vehicles, aircraft and guided weapons. It also portrays details such as rolling terrain and dense vegetation and shows when soil has been disturbed or when someone leaves a footprint.

Systems such as Dismounted Soldier could be made to replicate an exact location or building, right down to the pieces of furniture inside. Officials say these models can be so accurate that special operations forces could use them to rehearse selective missions. Other general scenarios don’t require that level of detail. It is not necessary to have the layout of a specific intersection in Kabul, for instance, so a tank battalion can learn how to do a breach, Fierko says.

Gaming technology will play an increasing role in teaching small units the basics, says Dan Wakeman, Army Training and Doctrine Command’s deputy capability manager for the virtual training environment.

“It provides us a unique period to get those small unit techniques and tactics down before we use the full-scale, multi-million dollar collective simulation,” Wakeman says.

It can be most effective to teach novice and intermediate skills, says Curtiss Murphy, a project engineer at Alion Science and Technology. “Serious” games make good trainers because they work for the same reason that good instruction does, he says, but “you cannot build games that will replace curriculum. People look at it as a panacea, but it’s not.”

Games can be used to take deep dives into expert areas, but they are most effective when aimed at conquering specific problems, he says. They should be used as pre-training and the middle ground in a crawl-walk-run training schedule, he explains.

“It’s like being on the driving range,” Murphy says.

For example, to prepare for the Navy’s main training event, 40,000 recruits each year now play the Damage Control Trainer game, which Alion had a hand in developing. Used during basic training, the game is meant to ready troops for deployment and teaches them how to respond to such incidents as floods, fires and mass casualties aboard ships.

“After eight weeks of training, if they are still having difficulty with basic things like navigating a ship or talking and communication on the phone, we can pick those target areas and go after them,” Murphy says.

Evidence of their effectiveness may save gaming efforts from military budget cuts.  

“All budgets across the board are going to be tighter,” Murphy says. “But I think simulation and gaming is probably going to be less affected by that because the returns on investment generally are considered very high.”

Studies have shown that Navy recruits improved performance by as much as 80 percent in the next phase of training after spending just one hour with the Damage Control Trainer. Even games with cartoonish graphics can be effective if the tasks being trained feel authentic, Murphy says.

Of course, a first-person shooter game is still fundamentally different from carrying a real assault rifle. And officials say that Dismounted Soldier and other simulations running on gaming engines are not replacements for tried-and-true methods used to prepare troops for battle. The gaming environment simply allows soldiers to get it right at a relatively low cost to the Army before they step into more expensive training arrays, where mistakes can be more costly.

“You always hear that we do simulation because it saves money,” Fierko says. “But that’s not why we do simulations. We do simulation to save lives. We do simulation because it allows us to enter a live-fire training event on a much higher level and bring soldiers to a certain level of training much quicker. Practice makes perfect.”

Fierko’s high school lacrosse coach taught him how to crosscheck the wrong way, “so I did it perfectly wrong every time,” he says. “But if I can show you precisely what you did right and what you did wrong, when you get in the real world you’ll know how to do it. Time and money are collateral benefits of simulation.”    

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, ComputerBased Training, Live Training, Videogames

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