Hollywood, Army join forces for war games

To train the next generation of elite warfighters, the Army has enlisted a few good video games.

Researchers at the Army's Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina del Rey, Calif., negotiated with the makers of the Xbox and PlayStation 2 video games to make it happen.

The ICT is a collaborative effort among the Army, the University of Southern California and the movie industry to develop realistic simulation and virtual reality tools to benefit military training, Hollywood moviemaking and the video game industry. The Army foots the $45 million bill for the institute. The goal at the ICT is to create highly realistic computer simulations that will allow soldiers to be immersed in the sights, sounds, feel and smells of live combat. The institute's primary areas of research include graphics or visualization involving photo-realistic environments for both training and mission rehearsal; audio allowing participants to fully experience the sounds of combat or other mission environments; and virtual humans combined with artificial intelligence.

"The ICT will continue work on projects such as creation of a mission-rehearsal exercise, developing games that meet training objectives and incorporating 4-D elements such as wind and temperature into the virtual world environment," Lt. Gen. Paul Kern, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said during a simulation conference in late May. "Clearly, the merging of Hollywood talent, computer gaming and artificial intelligence with Army doctrine and training will be the wave of the future."

The training approach researchers are considering follows the model already used at airborne school, according to Bill Swartout, the ICT's director of technology. Troops training to jump out of planes start by jumping from relatively low heights before moving up to a training tower and then an airplane, Swartout said.

"We think a soldier might be able to start with an Xbox or PlayStation, then move onto something better, and when he goes back to his unit go back to the PlayStation to maintain the skills he learned," Swartout said, adding that the ICT is now collaborating with video game makers Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to make the training method a reality.

The reason for the graduated approach is simple: funding, or the lack thereof. The ICT's ultimate goal would be to create a "Star Trek"-like holodeck, and the research facility itself hosts some impressive capabilities. But no Army barracks are likely to be equipped any time soon with a large, curved 30-foot-by-8-foot theater screen, 3-D graphics and surround sound, Swartout admits. The ICT can, however, make the video games more realistic and more useful for training on a day-to-day basis while occasionally allowing soldiers to visit a more sophisticated facility.

One possible downside is that realistic military training on a video game player might be available to potential adversaries as well.

"Everything we're doing right now is unclassified, but in transitioning the technology, it might go through a process where it has to become classified," Swartout said. "At that point, the stuff Sony would have access to is pretty limited."

Kern also said future weapon systems will likely have some degree of virtual reality simulation capabilities built in as yet another way of keeping troops well-trained.

"This is the direction we need to go for all new systems,".he said. "Embedded training allows the soldiers to train using the exact software they use when operating the system [in] real time."

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