Report outlines virtual reality challenges

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. April 17, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

The military services are looking increasingly to train in 3-D virtual reality environments and could one day find themselves fighting on a virtual reality battlefield, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service.

Military officers have used various 2-D Web 2.0 tools since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the report states, adding that senior officers have become convinced of their usefulness despite initial concerns over security and loss of control of data flows. The military has also used complex 3-D simulations to train warfighters for years.

However, more recent virtual reality environments such as Second Life allow people to interact with each other’s avatars, or computer-based images, in real time in any number of dynamic situations and offer even more realistic scenarios.

The military is already planning such environments for various uses, the report by Congress' research arm states. One environment, Sentient Worldwide Simulation, will run continuously and mirror real life and follow real-life events in real time, enabling officers to explore what-if scenarios. Others will be used to treat injured patients and help veterans dealing with ailments such as post traumatic stress disorder.

The intelligence community has also begun exploring how virtual reality communities might become actual battlefields with cyber weapons for launching attacks against terrorists and other enemies, the report states.

Clay Wilson, the report’s author, said the United States must rely on a communications infrastructure and acquisition methods that are old and relatively slow compared with other countries, particularly those in Asia.

He pointed to one project being built by China, called HiPiHi, that will reportedly support as many as 75 million simultaneous users.

Wilson wrote that If any country succeeds in dominating the virtual reality market, it could dictate technical standards and dominate the global infrastructure for these worlds. In that case, observers “questions whether the United States could adequately protect the security of its assets,” Wilson said.

Because of this possibility and because the U.S. military might have to conduct actual warfighting in virtual reality, Congress should consider funding research specifically tied to developing virtual reality exploits that the Defense Department can use, the report states.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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