Despite the challenges, game-based apps are making an appearance in military training. MS&T’s Michael Peck reports.
It should be the perfect match. Apps and mobile devices, which have transformed computing. And games, which have transformed what we derive from computers.
But for military training, it is has been a match delayed. Apps there are aplenty for the U.S. military, for everything from medical training to physical fitness. And games, too, for tactical training and battle command instruction. But training games on mobile devices? Not easy to find.
There are good reasons for this. Tablets and smartphones have limited processing power compared to desktops and laptops. Screen sizes are smaller, and tapping commands on tiny screens can be a chore. Apps, especially games, often seem simplistic compared to their desktop counterparts.
But what is the alternative? Mobile device sales are surging while desktop sales languish. Smartphones have almost become part of military kit, to the point where the U.S. Army is pursuing a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) for allowing soldiers to use their personal devices at work. For all their limitations, mobiles are light, portable, convenient, and a lot cheaper than running a base simulation center. And if that's what soldiers are using, then the training community will have to follow suit.
But games are coming to military mobiles, albeit slowly. One prominent example is Combat ID, from AEgis Technologies, Huntsville, Ala. An iPad and Android app, Combat ID is designed to teach combat identification of friendly and enemy vehicles. The game is clever enough that it won the 2012 People's Choice award at the I/ITSEC conference's Serious Games Showcase. A free demo version is even available for Android and iOS [https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/combat-id/id580195397?mt=8].
Combat ID puts the player in the shoes - or rather, offers the visual perspective - of a surveillance UAV supporting friendly ground troops. The computer graphics would not appear too shabby compared to a first-person-shooter running on a desktop.
There are four scenarios of progressively increasing difficulty. The first has the UAV escorting a friendly convoy down a Main Supply Route. There are vehicles along the route, some in the open and others in woods. Crosshairs, representing the UAV's sensors, move from target to target; when they alight on a target, a series of vehicle images appears, with the player tasked with selecting the image that matches the vehicle on the ground. It sounds like a kindergarten exercise, but for two factors. First, there is time pressure: if the vehicle is not identified within a few seconds, a friendly strike aircraft will assume it is hostile and launch a missile to destroy it.
Second, it is remarkable how much a U.S. Bradley infantry carrier looks like an enemy BMP-3 from 5,000 feet high on a foggy day, or how much a Humvee resembles an insurgent's Nissan Frontier pickup. A box-like M113 looks a lot like an M270 Multiple Rocket Launch System from overhead, a T-80 can be mistaken for an M-1 Abrams, and there are panoply of unfamiliar foreign vehicles, such as the German Puma infantry carrier and the Italian CV90 tank. It is easy to mis-identify a vehicle, and misidentification, or failing to identify a vehicle in time, counts as a fail. Success unlocks new levels and new capabilities.
Because apps like Combat ID are tools, not toys, they must be educational. So Combat ID preps the player with a "training garage" that shows the vehicles in the game from all angles, while a computer voice explains its distinguishing features and armament.
Combat ID originated from dual desires at AEgis: to create an effective combat identification tool, and to build up the company's competency in using commercial game engines for military simulators and interactive media instruction software, according to AEgis marketing director Everett Brooks. "A couple of things were in place to support this," Brooks recalls. "AEgis had great talent with game experience while working at other companies, along with other employees who had game element experience, such as 3-D models, terrain development and simulation experience."
AEGIS set a team of six designers, programmers, graphic artists and database developers to create Combat ID in less than six months. Like other app developers, AEgis had to struggle with making their software compatible with both iOS and Android, and for different models of tablets and smartphones.
Another game-based app is Dismounted Interactive Counter-IED Environment for Training, or DICE-T, from the Institute for Creative Technologies, a U.S. Army-funded research lab at the University of Southern California. DICE-T is an Android-based app that uses a first-person-shooter perspective to teach users how to avoid IEDs.
The setting is a patrol in Afghanistan that must reach an Afghan village. After receiving an intelligence briefing, players plot their route on a 2-D map and then identify the most likely points along the route for IEDs. The game then switches to 3-D, first-person mode. As the user continues along the plotted route, multiple-choice questions pop up on how to detect or defeat an IED.
MS&T had a chance to see a short video of the prototype. The game begins with a 2-D contour map of the patrol area. The player is asked to mark five different high threat areas for IEDs, and then plan a route. The player traces his finger along the tablet to select the route, which appears as a red path. Instructional video and a voiceover follows, with the narrator reminding users to avoid chokepoints like bridges, alleys and culverts, and to understand the terrain so they predict where the enemy will most likely set an ambush. Then the game-ish part appears as a 3-D first-person-shooter perspective; as the player traverses the patrol route, he taps the screen to indicate likely points for an ambush. Multiple-choice questions flash on the screen, such as "How can a power pole possibly be dangerous?" (answer: insurgents can use them as aiming markers.).
There are currently several versions, including a standalone tablet version, as well as another version, deployed at Ft. Dix, where users play individually but meet for group after-action reviews (AARs) in a 40-foot Conex trailer. The group AAR version is also available in a more portable configuration that fits in three pelican cases, with a PC used to run the AAR. The next step is a multiplayer version for laptops.
Todd Richmond, ICT's director of advanced prototypes and transition, believes game-based apps have much potential, but they must also overcome serious obstacles. "Mobile continues to be a challenge for a variety of reasons. Administrators don't like the devices on the network, and security is a real issue. We're looking at core issues around usability and appropriate use of technology. To date many have thrown technology at problems without really understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the tech and the various approaches. We're looking at projects that are more systematic in that regard, and also the broader problem of, 'okay, I've got a smartphone. Now what do I do with it that is really effective and compelling?'"
While Combat ID and DICE-T come out of the defense side of game-based apps, Modern Air Power - Touch is a reminder that games come out of gaming. MAP - Touch was designed by John Tiller, who has created dozens of successful high-fidelity PC-based computer wargames, such as the Panzer Campaigns series, for armchair generals. Tiller also created Modern Air Power, a PC entertainment game that, under the name Theater Airpower Visualization, was previously used by the U.S. Air Force at the Squadron Officers College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
Modern Air Power - Touch is the Android and iPad version of Modern Air Power. The player controls flights of strike, tanker and support aircraft. With its 2-D map, tiny airplane icons and colored range circles, Modern Air Power - Touch resembles a mission planning tool at an Air Operations Center (a free demo is available at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/modern-air-power-modern/id666550423?mt=8). Tiller also says that the Air Force has expressed an interest in Modern Air Power - Touch for BYOD learning.
The intro scenario starts with a flight of F-22s and a flight of F-15Es tasked with the destruction of a nuclear facility in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The players tap the aircraft flight to select it, taps the destination, and the aircraft head toward it.
They will be intercepted by a flight of Migs as well as surface-to-air missiles. Modern Air Power is not a flight simulator, so there are no high-G dogfights, just small airplane symbols, and little dots - representing missiles - crossing the screen like a game of Pong.
What is noteworthy about is that while many app-based games limit players to a couple of basic decisions, Modern Air Power-Touch offers players a vast number of options for planning and executing a mission. For example, the player can set the speed of his aircraft at various presets, such as 840 or 960 knots for the F-22. Tapping various menus allows the player to choose which weapons to fire at air or ground targets, check radar and air defense ranges, jettison fuel tanks, or activate jammers and chaff. In other words, the same array of options on the PC version - which is fairly detailed even for desktop strategy games - has been ported over to a tablet. With the small screen space of even a large tablet such as an iPad, tapping menus is slightly awkward, but not unbearably so.
Tiller says the key to porting a PC game to a mobile device is downsizing it to fit a mobile's limited capabilities. "The approach I take is to find smaller scenarios that are particularly suited for the mobile device platform as well as the mobile device interface. In addition, you need to understand that a person using a mobile device is probably looking for a shorter experience with an app. While someone may be happy with playing a scenario on a PC that takes months to play - and this is one of the appeals of full PC games - a user is probably looking for a shorter experience on a mobile device that may occupy them while waiting in a doctor's office or at soccer practice."
Starting with a PC game also offers the advantage that a desktop-based design offers more capacity for sophisticated features, when can be downsized to fit a mobile, Tiller says. "This results in mobile games which have an exciting level of detail that would be hard to reproduce if we were starting from scratch."