Game Engine May Improve Realism of Tactical Trainer

By Valerie Insinna
An information technology company is trying to stretch the limits of a popular video-game engine with the goal of making its tactical trainer more lifelike, including improvements in non-player characters’ intelligence and more realistic virtual landscapes.

The simulation wing of Ashburn,Va.–based Intelligent Decisions developed the Army’s Dismounted Soldier Training System, a virtual-reality environment where soldiers’ movements, such as firing a gun, are physically replicated within the game.

The system currently runs the Army’s program of record game called Virtual Battlespace 2, but the service has commissioned Intelligent Decisions to research whether using a commercial video-game engine — the Unreal Engine 3 — can expand the behaviors of soldier, enemy and civilian avatars to provide a more realistic experience.

The research project is part of a contract with the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

“Unreal is an open platform, and we’re able to go in and manipulate the source code to do almost anything we want to do because of its flexibility,” said Clarence Pape, vice president of simulation and training. “The program of record, VBS2, is locked, and so I have to work within the parameters that the Army has prescribed.”

For instance, when a soldier walks up to a civilian avatar in a VBS2 scenario, the civilian character has a limited number of responses. By using Unreal, Pape believes those responses can become more varied and sophisticated, such as a civilian choosing to give more or less information about insurgents based upon the facial expressions of the soldier.

“It’s making all of those elements inside the training exercise behave more realistically, more human-like,” he said. “Instead of having them do only one prescribed thing, there is a myriad of activities that they can do based upon what’s going on in their surroundings.”

The research focuses on improving the on-screen representation of the soldier’s avatar, such as allowing him to wave his hands above his head, fire around corners or take his hand off the weapon, and showing these movements in-game.

Intelligent Decisions will also look at new capabilities for helmet-mounted displays and how to better integrate sensors.

Many popular videogames such as Bioshock Infinite and the Mass Effect series are run off the Unreal Engine, which contributed to its selection for the research initiative. Pape hoped that familiarity will make gameplay more intuitive and immersive. “Our feeling is that soldiers will relate to that look and feel, and they will adopt it much quicker.”

Pape said he could not speculate on whether the Army will ultimately use Unreal. “The Army has made a substantial investment in VBS2, and so they’re not going to want to waste that investment,” he said.

The Army in July picked up Virtual Battlespace 3 to replace its predecessor as the new flagship for the service’s Games for Training program. That may keep the Army from branching out to Unreal any time soon.

Topics: Business Trends, Science and Engineering Technology, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, ComputerBased Training

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