National Defense Digital

Feb2012

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Avatars Invade Military Training Systems BY ERIC BEIDEL A lot of virtual training happens in video game-like environments, where soldiers see combat through the eyes of a superhero character. But if the Army is going to train its troops through gaming, officials say the characters in the virtual world should per- form more like actual soldiers. That is one part of the reasoning behind a new idea the Army has to create avatars for every soldier. These digital representa- tions would accompany service members throughout their training and allow them to see, through simulation, how their skills, or lack thereof, would play in life and death situations. The influence of video games on mili- tary training has been substantial, and the military's interest in avatars — for soldiers and other actors in simulations — is grow- ing. It was evident in the many products on display at the world's largest military train- ing and simulation conference in Orlando — in the graphics, the props and the appar- ent ease with which younger soldiers adapt to a virtual setting. And at the entrance to the showroom floor, greeting attendees to the Interservice/Industry Training, Simula- tion and Education Conference, was an avatar. A pixilated character named "Informa- tion Jason" bantered with service members and industry executives. It engaged in small talk and told them jokes. The avatar was performing the motions and speaking the words of a man behind a curtain several yards away. It was the creation of Organic Motion, a company that also supplied tech- nology for a Lockheed Martin Corp. system demonstrated at the conference. The Avatar Target Insertion System had onlookers gathering around to watch a service member talking to a suspicious computerized character in a simulated Afghanistan village. The avatar on the screen was able to hold a conversation in real-time. It responded to specific questions and commands. It was being controlled by an actor in New York City. "Some things we have the capability to do very easily," said Chester Kennedy, vice president of engineering, global training and logistics at Lockheed. "Some things we're not quite there with. The step in between is what I'm calling a manned avatar. There is a person driving the characteristics of that avatar, they just don't have to be in the same physical space." 22 NAT I O NAL D E F E N S E • F E B R UARY 20 12 The idea is to encode the soldier's DNA, so to speak, within a digital rep- resentation. This means the computer character would run as fast or jump as high as a soldier did during a physical training test. The avatar's marksmanship also would be tied to how effective a sol- dier has been in weapon drills. "It's very early in development. There is Avatars could be controlled by people in theater to imbue training with the most up-to-date information and scenarios on the ground. War is not static, Kennedy said. Threats are constantly changing. A trainee does not need to physically be in Afghani- stan to benefit from a role-playing experi- ence with someone who is, he said. "With avatar technology, you can take somebody today who experienced a new threat and have him role-play for those going into theater in real time," Kennedy said. "At some point in the future, we should be able to model those human behaviors and really create what the Army is trying to do. It is helping us to push that technol- ogy along. If you look at the training con- tinuum, how many things can be satisfied by an [artificially intelligent] avatar today as opposed to two years ago or a year ago? We're continually dramatically improving." The military eventually could have indi- vidualized systems available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Service members would be able to log on and interact with avatars in subjects specific to their training when- ever they have time, Kennedy said. Soldiers, themselves, would have avatar doubles under the Army's nascent plan for virtual training. "You design an avatar that has the indi- vidual facial features of a soldier," said James Blake, the Army's program executive officer for simulation, training and instrumenta- tion. "Then you add more of what he looks like, physical attributes. If he's a tall person, the avatar would be tall. If he's a short person, the avatar would be short. When you're in your game environment you'd like to have the physical and mental attributes of that individual reflected in that virtual world." a lot of homework to be done here," Blake said. "But you might think of it as actually being on a smartcard one day. You go to your post, you plug it in and we know everything about the soldier. And when a soldier behaves in a virtual environment with his squad members that representa- tion is in there. So if the soldier is not a good marksman it will reflect in his con- tribution to the performance of that squad." The Army needs to determine how dif- ficult it will be to accomplish this for every soldier. It may be that only three or four attributes really make a difference in virtual training, and avatars do not need to be so precise in their relationship to their human counterparts. Whatever the case, the Army wants to avoid the common pitfall of ava- tars in video games — the urge of the par- ticipant to create a superhuman character that in no way represents himself. "In most games, if you want to have a character, you want to be a superhero," Blake said. "Most people don't come into the [gaming] environment as themselves. They come into it to become someone else, because the goal is to become immortal, stronger, faster. What the Army is suggest- ing is maybe we need to develop a charac- ter that is representative of the individual so when we put that soldier's character in simulation it performs the same way the individual would perform." Army training officials began mention- ing their avatar concept at conferences this past year. It has been attracting interest and gaining support from industry, which along with the Army, has been putting more emphasis on developing training systems for individual soldiers. "Where things have really failed have been with individual soldiers," said Andrew Tschesnok, CEO of Organic Motion. A flight simulator offers the pilot replicas of the tools he would use to fly the actual aircraft. A vehicle simulator does the same. "But with individuals, there are no buttons to push," Tschesnok said. So far, the solution has been to create tools for ground troops. There is a mish- ISTOCKPHOTO

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