Five soldiers step into a 40-foot shipping container and gear up – vests, headgear and weapons. Soon they are immersed in a virtual urban environment, and taking fire.

As they move through the terrain, with complete range of field and facial recognition of each member of their unit, they interact with one another, with vehicles they encounter, and engage the virtual enemy.

The five-station simulator, called Immersive Group Simulation, was installed last year at Defence Research and Development Canada in Toronto by Acron Capability Engineering to help the military’s research arm evaluate human factors of combat.

“Traditionally, modelling simulation has been about the platform, not the individual soldier,” says John Nicol, chief executive officer of Acron, an Ottawa-based company that uses “serious gaming” technology to produce mounted and dismounted infantry simulation systems in both desktop and immersive formats.

Soldier training has changed dramatically over the past few years. Simulation has long been the primary means for preparing pilots, but the virtual world is now commonplace for infantry, police forces and other security personnel.

Nicol, a former major in the New Zealand Army, attributes the change in training to what he calls the perfect storm: advances in gaming technology; availability of relatively cheap hardware; and high quality, fast graphics cards. “We’re not using the game itself, we’re using the engine that actually creates the game to create training systems,” he says of Acron, which specializes in integrating different game technologies in the same virtual battle space, a feat only recently made possible.

With the high cost of aircraft, spending millions on large flight simulators was a logical approach, says Captain Jeremy MacDonald. “Rightfully so at the time: computers were expensive, the skill sets for training realistic graphics and imagery did not exist in large quantities, and very few companies had the expertise in building simulators. Where before a large company would pay $200,000 for a simulation programmer, now the tools are available where kids can do it in their basement.”

MacDonald heads Capability Development, a section of the Army Learning Support Centre at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, tasked with finding new methods to enhance army training.

Over the past six years, he’s seen a noticeable decrease in large simulators as organizations move to desktop systems capable of delivering the same effect. And the market has expanded from a few government clients to every police department and security organization with a small training budget and limited staff.

Commercially established games-based technology has allowed MacDonald to sidestep the cumbersome procurement process. SWAT 4, for example, is a tactical shooter his team has modified for the infantry school to simulate being a member of an urban operations team. “The owners of that game put $15 million into development, and they made their money back on the commercial market; they’re giving it to us for $10 a copy,” he said. “If we’d contracted that out, we’d have had to pay somebody else the $15 million and we’d have had our custom solution. There has been a huge market shift in making this kind of thing accessible.”

Capability Development is adapting games and tools such as Microsoft’s X-Box and Bohemia Interactive’s Virtual Battlespace2 to a range of situations such as call-for-fire in an urban environment. “That’s been an issue in Afghanistan,” he said. “We’re calling in artillery at very close ranges to where our troops are. We can use a video game to replicate a built-up area and duplicate the calling in of artillery, something we can’t do safely in a training area.”

To help others understand the breadth of these changes, his team has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Training Centre to show police forces how off-the-shelf technology can deliver cost-effective training through a program called Canadian Forces: Direct Action.

War equals demand
Robert Kopersiewich has seen the same changes, but the vice-president of product management and business development for Presagis says the need for a new level of ground simulation is also being driven by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s all about crowds and people and understanding how to react in a cluttered environment.”

The Montreal-based company is an independent subsidiary of CAE, a recent amalgamation of Terrex, Multi-Gen Paradigm, Engenuity Technologies and CAE divisions that specializes in COTS technology.

The applications to create the degree of realism required by the military have only emerged in the last two or three years, he said, pointing to the games and film industry and the advent of such tools as AI.implant, artificial intelligence software acquired by Engenuity. “The intelligence of non-player characters is basically the same kind of intelligence military organizations are deploying to simulate what they’re seeing.”

Presagis has developed a range of applications to create synthetic environments – terrain, 3D models of buildings and vehicles, human representation – assign hi-fidelity behaviours, and interface humans and machines. So not only can they create a vibrant urban scene, they can also assign behavioural models to a crowd so that it will react realistically to something like an IED explosion.

“All of that clutter, all of those people, cars and animals really become a crucial element in the operation itself. Historically, the barrier for our customers was to encode all of those behaviours. All of those entities had to be hand coded. Everything was pre-scripted and it gave everything a very artificial flavour,” Kopersiewich explained. ”Now you can take those models and assign them to a crowd of 1000 people. And when you run the simulation, it is just uncanny to what degree the crowd will behave in a realistic fashion.”

Presagis includes the Directorate for Land Synthetic Environments among its clients and is applying that technology to mission simulators for both the CP 140 Aurora and the CH148 Cyclone, the maritime helicopter program.

While most of the buzz may be around shooter games, Paul Lindahl is seeing a demand in a critical but sometimes over looked area – maintenance.

The co-founder and CEO of Vancouver-based NGRAIN piqued the interest of the Canadian Forces several years ago with software capable of virtually dismantling a piece of equipment down to its smallest components, ideal for demonstrating repair procedures in a logical sequence.

“We have new personnel coming in who don’t have specialized skills and are thrown in to operate equipment that they may not have been trained upon,” Lindahl observes, adding that the Air Force has decreased from 13 to three trades in a decade. “There are not enough skilled workers to go around. What you need to do is…make everyone a generalist and deliver the specialists’ knowledge using technology.”

In part because of the success of Virtual Task Trainer as a teaching tool, NGRAIN recently signed a five-year contract with National Defence to provide modeling and simulation solutions.

But Lindahl is already looking beyond Canada’s training needs to NATO’s greatest training challenge – the Afghan National Army. “They have 156,000 people to be trained on weapons, vehicles and sustainment. Even if you translate those manuals into [their] language, the literacy rate of the Afghan security forces is not very high. If you could use 3D simulation and voiceover to communicate…it’s as if there was a person showing them how to do it.”

Virtual future
Though most simulation technology is being developed in parallel with allied countries, MacDonald admits there is a gap between Canada and its allies: the army lacks its own game-based application. More than a corporate license of somebody else’s technology, he believes the army needs an application it can develop as required. “We’re in the process of examining 200 game engines. But it comes with a price tag,” he said. “We need the horsepower from on high to say we’re going to go here and this is what it is going to cost.” MacDonald has a small team of 14 that he expects to grow rapidly over the next three years.

And what will they be creating?

Kopersiewich imagines his tools being used as cultural trainers to help the military better understand the culture of local populations and the impact operations could have on their psychology. Lindahl, on the other hand, can see interactive 3D graphics not only telling a maintenance engineer that there is a problem with a component of an aircraft, but actually showing the person “where it is physically, how to get at it and how to fix it.”

“What you’re going to see is the technology we use in training start supporting operations,” concludes MacDonald. In a scenario reminiscent of the briefing prior to the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, he believes “commanders should be able to look into almost a hologram to see where their forces are. In that environment, we’d be able to overlay weapons effects, weapons ranges, [etc], and actually get a true feel for the capability of manoeuvre units. That’s the kind of technology we’re playing with now.”

Can teleporting be far over the horizon?