Military Simulation Companies Seek New Markets

By Valerie Insinna

ORLANDO — Now more than ever, the lines are blurring between commercial and defense simulation companies.

That trend is expected to persist as the Defense Department budget shrinks, forcing defense contractors to look to other sectors such as health care and education, company officials said at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. Meanwhile, commercial gaming companies continue to market their products to the military in the hopes that their low cost, innovative devices will attract new buyers.

Game-based learning is on the rise, and the scope of virtual training is changing, said Bill Rebarick, deputy general manager for Cubic Advanced Learning Solutions. This new wave of training will teach troops how to perform a task, allow them to practice it, and evaluate skills over time instead of simply meeting an objective.

"We see [military customers] investing a lot more in some advanced types of training skills to improve the efficacy of training, the retention of the knowledge that you gain while you're going through the training and the tools and processes that have greater" returns on investment, he told National Defense.

Cubic’s video-game based courseware for the littoral combat ship marked a shift for the Navy’s surface fleet, which traditionally trains sailors through onboard experience, he said. Now, the Navy plans to expand its use of immersive virtual learning for DDG-1000 class ships and perhaps even some types of submarines.

While the overwhelming narrative is that declining funding will ultimately lead to less innovation, several upstart companies attended the conference, hoping to break into the defense industry. Some of these firms had their genesis in the commercial video game industry and have not yet finalized product designs.

Today, when a soldier trains in a virtual reality environment, he can put on a headset that gives him a high-fidelity, 360-degree view of the scenario or wear sensors that track his motions. But he can only run so far before he reaches a wall. A new company, Virtuix, has designed a treadmill-like device that would allow troops to run or walk continuously, said Product Manager Colton Jacobs.

The device, called the Omni, was originally intended for video gamers who wanted to incorporate new virtual reality products in small homes or apartments, Jacobs said. The company funded product development through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter and has sold 25,000 devices.

Virtuix is a newcomer in the I/ITSEC exhibit hall, but they already have customers in the defense industry. BAE Systems is combining use of the Omni with Virtual Battlespace 3, the flagship game in the Army’s Games for Training lineup, to create a virtual reality simulator for infantry, he said. 

The commercial version of the Omni will go on sale in May 2014, but Virtuix also plans on developing a military version of the product, he said.

“The military version would have different kinds of support systems to allow for a soldier to wear his entire gear set while doing training, because right now it's a little bit limited in terms of what I can wear on my body,” Jacobs said. It would also allow for more freedom of movement, such as being able to crouch.

Back for its second year was Oculus VR, a technology company that makes virtual reality headsets aimed primarily at the entertainment gaming industry. The company made its I/ITSEC debut in 2012 with headsets made out of cardboard.

Even at such an early stage of development, the response from simulation companies was overwhelming, said Joseph Chen, the company’s senior product manager.

Although the Oculus Rift is not yet in the hands of troops, defense simulation companies, such as Havok and Northrop Grumman, have begun to incorporate it with their own game engines, scenarios or hardware. Bohemia Interactive Simulations also plans to integrate it into Virtual Battlespace 3, he said.

"We're basically looking forward to more and more developers integrating the Oculus Rift, and ultimately they're going to be the creative minds that come up with these amazing applications, whether they be helicopter simulations, maintenance simulations, medical simulations. Who knows?" he said.

With a target cost of about $300, Oculus Rift devices are designed to be less expensive than virtual reality systems currently in use by the military.  Not only does that address the Pentagon’s budget constraints, it could fundamentally change the way the military does training, Chen said.

Instead of buying one slightly less expensive simulator, the services could buy hundreds of headsets for the same amount of money, allowing troops to train together in an affordable way, he said. A fully functional end user device isn’t expected until at least 2014, however.

Like much of the rest of the defense industry, many military simulation companies are hoping to widen their markets to offset declining Pentagon spending.

As unmanned aerial systems are integrated into civil airspace, UAS training for non-military operators could emerge as an area for growth, said Nick Scarnato, Rockwell Collins’ director of marketing and strategy.

When that happens, Rockwell Collins will be positioned to fill that need, said LeAnn Ridgeway, vice president and general manager for simulation and training solutions.

“We’ve been on the advisory boards and the front end in working with several global rule-making authorities on what is going to happen in the commercial airspace when unmanned vehicles enter in,” she said.

About 40 percent of Cubic’s business today is for the commercial sector, but the company plans to increase its commercial sales, especially in the field of health care, Rebarick said.

"The size of the LCS contract, frankly, has allowed us to leverage some of the successes we've had there to be more effective in the commercial marketspace. So we're just now on the front edge of being able to take advantage of that."

GameSim, a software development company that splits its work between entertainment and defense customers, has seen its revenues increase by 30 percent in the last year, said its president and founder Andrew Tosh.

The company wants to expand the audience of its Conform software — which helps users compare and map geographic information system data — to other federal and local government agencies that use such data, he said.

Topics: Business Trends, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.