A new reality

Visit soldiers at any Army infantry division outside Washington, D.C., and they will relate a universal complaint: The people who designed their gear and computer systems typically do not build equipment that can survive the rough terrain, choking dust and thundering vibrations of the battlefield.

The Army wants to change that.

Next week, the Army's Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, which designs and buys vehicles ranging from Humvees to main battle tanks, and the National Automotive Center (NAC), TACOM's research conduit to industry, plan to demonstrate how virtual reality can give soldiers input into designing new equipment that works better under the harsh realities of the battlefield.

TACOM and NAC plan to demonstrate the virtual reality design project, called Simulation Throughout the Life Cycle (SimTLC), at the Association of the United States Army annual convention in Washington, D.C., next week. Key to the project is the Virtual Distributed Collaborative Environment, which ties soldiers and engineers together to improve how the Army buys equipment.

"We're going to showcase a whole new acquisition process [that] applies high-end visualization tools to new product design...in a distributed, collaborative environment," said Grace Bochenek, senior research engineer at NAC.

Bochenek said soldiers collaborate in the acquisition process by connecting to an advanced simulator called the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE). Soldiers in the 10-foot walled simulator use sight, sound and touch to respond to stimuli produced by the simulator's virtual reality equipment.

CAVE - whose name originates from Plato's Republic, in which the philosopher uses a cave as a metaphor to explore ideas about perception, reality and illusion - will enable soldiers to test the designs of a tank or jeep before the vehicles are built. CAVE was developed at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

Through the use of audio and high-resolution 3-D video systems powered by a Silicon Graphics Inc. processor, soldiers at the Army's Mounted Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Knox, Ky., can, for example, remotely participate in the design of a tank turret with engineers at NAC's offices in Warren, Mich.

Jan Drabczuk, director for simulation and logistics in the Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s government industry group, said Army soldiers and engineers can use the simulations to test "different designs and concepts before any metal is cut."

Drabczuk believes that developing major Army equipment such as tanks in a virtual environment that includes input from soldiers "will save hundreds of millions of dollars" by helping the service translate digital design data into final products.

The two-year, $11.4 million virtual collaborative system is a joint venture between the Army and a seven-member industry team led by EDS. The Army and EDS share the costs through a dual-use (military and commercial) application program.

TACOM plans to develop multiple CAVEs to build a distributed simulation network, and using the Transportation Department's driving simulator at the University of Iowa and advanced motion simulators, the experience will "add fidelity to the [design] process," Bochenek said.

Soldiers nationwide can interact with one another in cyberspace, Bochenek said, thanks to the virtual reality network, "with the driver located in Iowa and the gunner located in Michigan."

Bob Heinlein, the EDS virtual collaborative program manager, described the simulated environment as much more advanced than the networked training simulators the Army now uses. The virtual collaborative system converts computer-aided design data into data soldiers can see in a virtual environment. "This is an environment you can immerse yourself in and walk around in as you do in real life," Heinlein said.

Once soldiers and engineers agree on a design, Heinlein said the team can take an "electronic snapshot" of CAD data and then export it into an integrated data environment that enables multiple users to share the data.

To test the use of the virtual collaborative technologies, the NAC-backed project also is working on preproduction evaluation of the Army's new Grizzly tracked mine-clearing vehicle and working with soldiers in a redesign of the cab of the Army's battlefield tactical truck.

Bochenek said the virtual collaborative system and SimTLC will lead to a breakthrough in how the Army designs weapons and systems with soldier input.

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