Training as portable as the Marines

The value of biofeedback

By using a virtual training system, military instructors might learn as much as their students about how warfighters perform under combat pressure, and they won’t have to wait for a student to make a wrong move online to understand what is happening.

Researchers working on the next generation of the Marine Corps’
Deployable Virtual Training Environment want the system to be able to accommodate feedback, such as results from monitoring trainees’ heart rates or other physiological indicators, or information from electroencephalography monitoring of electrical activity in the brain for indications of confusion or stress.

Instructors could use that bio information to gain insights into situational errors that might be stress-related, said Roy Stripling, who oversees the project for the Office of Naval Research’s Information Technology Division.

Stripling said he can also imagine using training specifically designed to measure a Marine’s reactions under stress, when it would be important to determine whether the simulation succeeded in inducing the desired level of stress.

— David F. Carr

When Marines deploy overseas, they must bring training tools with them to stay sharp, and that’s the purpose of the Marine Corps’ Deployable Virtual Training Environment (DVTE).

The suite of training software programs simulates multidisciplinary scenarios, such as helicopter pilots providing support for infantry operations or tank convoys. No virtual environment can substitute for live training, but DVTE enables the Marines to practice teamwork, tactics, standard operating procedures and decision-making skills on a virtual battlefield.

Now the corps wants to turn DVTE into a more easily customizable tool that trainers who aren’t computer programmers can use more extensively in the field.

 In March, the Office of Naval Research awarded the University of Central Florida (UCF) a three-year, $7.3 million research contract to improve DVTE’s tools for creating new training scenarios, gathering and analyzing the results, and giving instant feedback to participants in the virtual training sessions.

The corps is deploying 1,000 laptop PCs loaded with the latest DVTE software. The suite is mostly being employed at regimental-level training facilities, but amphibious units have reported using it for as much as 60 hours per week while en route to their destinations. 

“It’s great for training when you otherwise couldn’t,” said Maj. James McDonough, the Marines’ DVTE program officer.

Other government agencies, particularly those involved in law enforcement and disaster response operations, should also be able to learn from the military’s experience and apply it to their own challenges, McDonough said.

“Decision-making in complex scenarios is absolutely something you can expose someone to in simulation,” he said.

Automating feedback
DVTE is proving useful, but the Marines have identified several shortcomings that the next generation of the software should address. In particular, trainers need better tools for sorting through all the data recorded during a training session to identify mistakes and provide better coaching. The tool includes the ability to replay a scenario and isolate the actions of each participant, but that is not sufficient because it’s time-consuming to review, McDonough said.

Ideally, the system would be able to automatically flag critical mistakes and automate larger portions of the after-action report.

“We can tell weapons effects — where a bullet started and where it ended — so we can tell when certain rules are being violated, with fratricide being a big one,” McDonough said. It shouldn’t take a manual review of the recordings to determine when one player’s virtual bullet passes through another player’s virtual body. “That’s just a geometry issue,” he said.

UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, which worked on the demonstration project that preceded DVTE, is now working to take the system to the next level.

“Our research is on how to make simulators into training systems,” said Denise Nicholson, director of the Applied Cognition and Training in Immersive Virtual Environments (ACTIVE) lab at UCF. She is principal investigator of the research project.

The deployed version of DVTE has excellent capabilities for displaying a realistic 3-D simulation, modeling the physics of rifle and mortar fire, and showing the effects of weather ranging from the subtle effects of humidity to the harsh conditions of a sandstorm, she said. However, creating a new scenario is proving more complicated than it should be, limiting the deployment of the system, Nicholson said.

“Experienced instructors have wonderful ideas on how to use this system,” she said, but they don’t all have the technical savvy to set up new scenarios in the system.

“The people who run training for the Marines have a lot of subject-matter expertise, but they are not advanced computer technicians,” said Roy Stripling, who oversees the project for the Office of Naval Research’s Information Technology Division. “If the tools are hard to use, there is a good chance people are not going to use them.”

Stripling said other goals include providing tools that allow instructors to:

  • Decide when and how to provide feedback.

  • Tweak scenarios to improve the attainment of training objectives.

  • Reinforce the skills a trainee is shown to lack.

More control desired
DVTE runs on Windows-based laptop PCs for training stations in combination with a Linux-based Joint Semi Automated Forces administration console for the exercise controller. As many as 33 soldiers using networked laptops can participate in a joint DVTE training session.

The administration console includes a graphical user interface, but creating or modifying a scenario is still challenging because of the large number of menus, configuration screens and variables. While giving a demonstration at the ACTIVE lab in Orlando, research scientist Larry Davis showed how he could modify a desert warfare scenario with precise control over environmental factors such as temperature, wind speed and direction, and precipitation.

“See, I just made it snow,” Davis said, chuckling. “It’s snowing in the desert.”

Instead of such godlike control, trainers need the ability to construct realistic scenarios more quickly, Nicholson said. Ideally, a trainer should be able to concentrate on the training scenario and objectives without having to become an expert in computer simulation technology or needing a lot of specialized computer support.

“Right now, you’ve got to send somebody like me out there to support this,” Davis said.

Nicholson said she hopes a next-generation version of the software will allow the trainer to start with a more generalized scenario, such as tank convoy operations in the desert, and actively assist the construction of the scenario by placing equipment, actors, and obstacles in the virtual world and setting training objectives for the exercise.

“Instead of presenting all these advanced options for wind direction, humidity, temperature, maybe we can have them specify the training objective and the firing environment — sandstorm, windstorm, whatever — and give them the option to pick at that level,” Nicholson said.

In part, this would be a matter of establishing templates for different kinds of training that the instructors could then modify. Another strategy might be filtering options so a trainer would only have choices that are relevant to a given scenario. Introducing snow into the scenario might not be a necessary option if the scenario is desert warfare.

Part of Nicholson’s team’s work will be to prototype software for DVTE that would, for example, coach instructors on the feedback they should give to participants in an exercise. The system should allow Marines in the field to run ad hoc exercises without the benefit of a trainer and get performance feedback directly from the software. The UCF team is slated to release one incremental software
upgrade each year for the next three years.
Carr ([email protected]) is a freelance writer. 


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