Training in a simulated environment is the way of the future. While it will never completely replace the invaluable live experience, it is more cost-effective and able to recreate scenarios many live exercises simply cannot. As successive generations enter the military having grown up in a gaming world of virtual and augmented reality on an array of stationary and mobile devices, their expectations will drive the army, navy and air force further down this road. However, there are still some hurdles to overcome as we interface man and machine in virtual environments.

Carl Daniels is the vice president of products and solutions for Bluedrop Performance Learning in Halifax. Bluedrop’s state-of-the-art training and simulation centre for land, sea and air has developed and adopted some of the most advanced uses of modern gaming technologies. It’s also provided Daniels the vehicle to consider some of the issues of human-machine interface.
What’s the challenge?

We use a lot of virtual reality technology to teach procedural things, such as a hoist mission or a door gun procedure in an aircraft. But often in this virtual world, you need to interact with things in a physical environment. So in the case of a door gun, we actually provide the physical gun and then represent it in the game. But there are times when an operator needs to work with a control panel, for example, which becomes very difficult in a virtual environment. There are workarounds such as switching back and forth between the virtual and the physical worlds, where maybe you flip up your goggles and interact with the physical panel in front of you. But that extra transition from the virtual to the physical can be considered negative learning because it is a step that wouldn’t normally be there. There is some interesting technology we have considered, such as data gloves, so you are actually still interacting with the panel but it is a virtual panel in front of you. It may also be possible to construct the environment so that if you are close to a panel, your virtual reality projection goes away and you now see the physical panel through your goggles. That’s the challenge. The problems really have to do with interfacing between those virtual and physical worlds. Until we can overcome that, I think simulation will be challenged to address those concerns.

How generational is this? Does greater use of helmet-mounted displays in “gaming” help acclimatize future users to that situation and perhaps reduce the challenge?

Oculus Rift is a new technology that provides a head-mounted display for X-Box or PlayStation. It’s a couple hundred bucks and ready for the consumer market. There will be consumer applications for Oculus Rift within the next few months. So there will be a generation of kids growing up who are used to working in that virtual environment. And with Google Glass technology and augmented reality, they will project imagery in a virtual environment, but blended with the real environment. So, generationally, it will become embraced with simulation and training technology. But I think it will take time and there are some real technical challenges to overcome.

How difficult are those challenges from a military standpoint?

There are software and hardware issues, but security is always a concern; wireless technology is a concern. There are a whole series of accreditation and standards that need to be met first. The military will always be behind the consumer market because of that challenge of implementing new technology.

As a customer, are militaries aware of the art of the possible or are they still determining their needs as they seek better and less expensive ways to teach and train?

I think our customer is getting smart, because of what they see online, what they can do with cell phones, etc. In some cases they are asking for things that maybe we don’t have the solution for yet. Time on actual equipment is very expensive, so many are asking how simulation can reduce time on actual equipment without degrading the performance or throughput of their users. So just proving that simulation works and that it can replace some of the training on actual equipment or reduce the amount of time that that equipment is required – we’re trying to expand the amount of time that people would expect the simulator to be used.

Are there barriers to greater adoption?

The military is based on tradition, certain branches more so than others, so sometimes you have to face the challenge of: this is how we have always done it. As you integrate any new technology into a system, you have to worry about organizational change – is the organization ready to take that leap? There are behavioural challenges too; it changes the way you have been doing something for quite a long time. That’s probably the biggest challenge we face.

But I also see more simulation being used to replace time on vehicles and aircraft as we overcome some of the issues with that human-machine interface. The challenge isn’t a technical one, it’s more a procurement one: how quickly can you introduce new technology. Our procurement system needs to be as agile as our technology development.

Beyond the cost factor, how does this impact individual training and collective training?

For individual learning, everybody learns differently and at a different pace, so tailored or personalized learning would be the ultimate standard. But the challenge organizationally is that everybody needs to go through the same steps, the same standards at more or less the same time, so I’m not sure we’re ready for that yet. From a collective training perspective, the real value may be in networking systems. You could have a crew on the east coast and a crew on the west coast performing the same mission together as part of a federation in a virtual environment.

Do training and mission rehearsal eventually converge in a simulated environment?

The key is how quickly you can modify your visual systems. Typical simulators have pre-defined terrain databases and models. But if you could quickly download satellite imagery or imagery of what a theatre now looks like hours before a mission, get it into your simulator and run through some scenarios in close to real time, it would help with mission rehearsal. When we talked of blurring the lines between training and operational requirements, that’s where I see it going.

What are the ultimate applications for this?

Think of what you can do on your mobile phone. It’s access to content in a mobile environment. Just-in-time information in the context of doing your job, whether it’s information on now to perform a particular maintenance task or information to identify certain improvised explosive devices. I see the mobile aspect of delivering content when it is needed in the field as being quite unique.