Gaming technologies are improving exponentially; costs are coming down. MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch writes from GameTech with the latest.
Attendance at the 2014 GameTech Defense Users Conference in Orlando was down from previous years, primarily due to Department of Defense travel restrictions; however, NCS President & CEO Lt Gen (Ret) Tom Baptiste noted the importance of gaming technology has increased in response to the need to improve and expand Home Station training. Keynoter Waymon Armstrong, President & CEO of Engineering and Computer Simulations (ECS) noted the silver lining in DoD budget cutbacks that could increase opportunities for advancing both the technology and its adoption by the defense community.
"I think that all of the services recognize that as we look at winding down our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing the soldiers home, what is clear in the austere budget environment is that every one of our service chiefs are going to have to find a way to do things cheaper, faster and more efficiently," Baptiste pointed out. "And that means that they just can't travel to train, they have got to find way to maintain readiness through Home Station training and education. So a gaming application, where you can provide an immersive environment to insert soldiers into any environment that can be replicated by a gaming engine, is the wave of the future. Gaming is becoming the predominant means for Home Station training."
This was the third year that GameTech was hosted by the National Center for Simulation (NCS). The Conference was originally hosted and organized by the US Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI).
According to Armstrong, the trend to reduce US defense budgets could actually prove to be a boon to the gaming industry. "The clouds of the budget that hurt the defense industry are, I believe, a benefit for us in the gaming arena," he said. "With the options available with the increase in the capability of gaming technology, there is tremendous opportunity for us to take advantage of that. This could be the catalyst, and a big opportunity for someone who is working in gaming to commercialize."
Armstrong observed that gaming technology capabilities are increasing exponentially, but its costs are actually coming down.
"The impact of gaming is that it is the great equalizer, with the costs coming down," he related. "The effect of Unity, the open- source game engine, has driven the costs down for what Unreal is doing right now. It used to be that all of your costs went into gaming engines. And now - because of what I call the Unity effect -- it has equalized the market and dropped the barrier of entry for a lot of people. It has changed the dynamics of the market in the gaming industry, and brings a lot more people into it. That means those application costs for the client, especially in the current defense world, are going down."
The GameTech 2014 proceedings featured three content tracks, Gaming, Virtual Reality and Mobile. Gaming presentations included those for gaming design, including such design for user cognitive adaptability to changing battlefield conditions. Other presentations covered gaming technology applications for medical education and training, language and culture education and training, as well as those for soldier battlefield training. Overall, the GameTech agenda featured a total of 48 presentations during the two-and-a-half day show.
On the virtual worlds side, Robert Chadwick introduced the GameTech audience to Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) organization's Virtual Worlds Sandbox concept. Matthew Hackett of the Army Research Laboratory's Simulation Training and Technology Center (STTC) outlined that entity's Medical Virtual Environment.
In the Mobile Track, Christine Allen of the STTC gave a description of that organization's work to develop a mobile application to train first-responders through the employment of gaming and augmented reality. Janet Weisenford of ICF International described the creation of mobile just-in- time training for the Air Force Medical Service.
"What we have found over the past three years is that these individual tracks are starting to merge, and you can't define them individually anymore," Baptiste said. "That is because there is so much cross-cutting across those tracks. The focus for these areas is starting to become blurred as these technologies are being incorporated together across the board for many applications. Where is the technology going in virtual worlds that will impact the gamers, for example?"
New Virtual Reality Technology
One of the most promising new technologies at GameTech 2014 and the hoped-for breakthrough for the widespread application of virtual reality was the Oculus Rift 2 VR headset. This headset, still in the prototype stages and scheduled for public release some time next year, is being developed by Oculus VR, a recent $2 billion Facebook acquisition.
The Oculus Rift 2 tantalizes many in the gaming industry, as well in such fields as medicine and aviation. That is because it provides something that heretofore has not been available -- a lightweight, high-resolution, reasonably priced VR headset with a wide field of view that nearly eliminates the motion sickness syndrome that bedeviled earlier headset users. While a perfect platform for 3D games, some early speculated uses include those for PTSD therapy treatment and a number of training applications. Skip Rizzo, a pioneer in VR psychological immersion treatment at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), is one of several research experts who will be working with Oculus during final testing of the device.
I/ITSEC 2014 attendees will be able to try out the Oculus Rift 2 headset at the ECS exhibit, Armstrong reported. The Orlando-based company will be employing the VR headset to demonstrate its Veteran's Administration (VA) Virtual Medical Center and some new games for medical training. It will also be using the headset to take attendees on a virtual tour of an offshore oil rig, an application designed for its commercial clients in the energy field. Armstrong said that the new VR hardware has great potential for training applications.
"For me, the most exciting thing that I saw at GameTech was Oculus Rift 2," said Pete Morrison, Co-CEO for Bohemia Interactive Simulations. "This is a fantastic bit of technology and a truly immersive experience. And I think that the Army really needs to look at that kind of technology as a means to deliver training. The military really needs to figure out how to better exploit gaming technology."
VBS 3 Enhancements
Morrison was at GameTech 2014 as a presenter to tell the audience about the latest developments for the company's VBS 3 gaming technology - the VBS 3.4 upgrade to this flagship software program for PEO STRI's Games for Training Project. VBS 3.4 is another enhancement of VBS 3 provided by Bohemia under the five-year contract. The company is in its second year of the contract, and intends to provide two VBS upgrades in each remaining year.
The key feature in VBS 3.4 is support for a much larger terrain database, with a maximum of up to 2,000 by 2,000 kilometers. Morrison described this upgrade as" a massive improvement" over earlier versions.
"For many years, terrain size was one of the limiting factors for training, but we are working very hard to change that, particularly in the maritime and air domains," Morrison explained. "We absolutely intend to simulate the entire planet with an upcoming version of VBS. One of the reasons why we want to do that is to help solve the terrain problem. This idea is that if we are deploying to Africa, for example, we need to spend a couple of months generating the terrain. I think that is not what the users demand. They want tactical training tools that already have the entire planet at some level of fidelity within the game engine."
At I/ITSEC, Bohemia will be releasing a new version of VBS, VBS Image Generator (VBS IG). This product was developed so that the US Army does not have to buy really expensive image generator software anymore, since with VBS IG the image generation software will not cost anything, Morrison said. Bohemia will also be demonstrating a third product besides VBS 3.4 and VBS IG at I/ITSEC, which Morrison would not divulge at the time of the interview, except that it would "resolve a particular problem in tactical training, and makes VBS a more useful tactical training tool."
Army Games for Training
According to John Matthews, Project Director for PEO STRI's Games for Training, the Army conducted a Government Acceptance Test (GAT) of VBS 3.4 this July and August at Fort Campbell and at PEO STRI, and will conduct a retest in March 2015. He expects the upgrade to be released to the field about three months later.
There are currently 106 VBS 3 suites deployed in the field at 84 Army locations. Matthews said that the Army is continuously buying more computer systems to put more such training sites in the field, with several more installations scheduled, depending on the Games for Training budget. Army training capabilities with VBS 3 will be significantly enhanced when the service is able to integrate the currently stand-alone Close Combat Tactical Trainer (CCTT) and Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) into training scenarios. Matthews expects that the service will have this capability by the beginning of next year.
Additional plans are to network VBS sites together for joint training exercises, with some testing already underway, Matthews added. "The future is to be able to tie those elements together --network them - so that two Army sites can train in real-time together," he added."We have already experimented in this area with leased lines to expand Home Station training."
The PEO STRI Games for Training Team members reported that the biggest advantages of VBS 3.4 are better stability and the capability for a higher entity count in training scenarios. Other improvements include those of human dimensional modeling to more accurately model those users 'own physical characteristics and movements, more realistic entity crowd behavior, along with higher entity populations, and improved radio communication.
New Army Gaming Portal
While VBS 3 is the flagship gaming technology-based training tool for the Games for Training Project, there are several more games that have been adopted for training and made available to all Army sites through a newly developed gaming portal, the PEO STRI MilGaming site.
A number of games already employed by the Army and other services are provided through the portal. Along with VBS products, some of the games included are: BiLat to teach bilateral communications for leaders; the Operational Language and Cultural Training System; Emerging Leader Training Environment; Urban Sim; and several others, including commercial off- the-shelf games.
"Anybody who has access to the Web can go to this site with a CAT card," Matthews explained. "We have plans to update this site continuously. Some of the first new games to be added to the site will deal with PTSD counseling, for example. We are also working on integrating some medical capability, such as the Tactical Casualty Combat Care (TC3) game, and integrating it with VBS3. We are also looking at a new scenario to UrbanSim that will focus towards NORTHCOM and their Homeland Security mission on the first-responder and disaster side."
"We consider this portal to be a one-stop-shop for users to provide their particular models, terrains scenarios or best practices that they want to share with the Army that they have developed," Matthews summed up." This allows the portal to act as a repository of user-created content to help the Army same time and money in the development of training scenarios."