With the world now some months into the pandemic, MS&T’s Editor Andy Fawkes reports on developments in remote training and working during and beyond Covid-19.

“Remote Working”, “Working from Home”, “Teleworking”, once minority ways of working have in the space of weeks become commonplace and with some employees unlikely to return to offices anytime soon. In 2019 a UK ONS study reported that just over 5% of the total workforce worked mainly from home, and in June 2020 this had risen to 49%. Similar trends have taken place across the world because of Covid-19 and words such as “Zoom” have entered day to day language. Live events and exhibitions have moved wholesale online. The pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of the workplace and remote work has become a new reality, making connectivity, speed, reliability, cybersecurity, and undisrupted access essential elements of organizations. Further, a whole generation of children, future recruits, and employees, are experiencing remote education and schooling over an extended period.

The military S&T community is perhaps well placed in this new era given its technological heritage and its willingness to embrace innovation in ICT. However, it was not even ground at the outset with government and corporate ICT policies and equipment often not optimised for teleworking. MS&T has nevertheless seen a very rapid response within the community, and we have tracked developments and spoken to S&T leaders to hear their story of the last few months and insights on the future.

Existing Trends Rapidly Accelerated

The drive towards training at the point of need anytime, anywhere is not a new concept with distributed training for military pilots for example, being trialled and implemented over the last 20 years. The US Army Synthetic Training Environment (STE) program has been aiming to shift away from facility-based training to training at home-stations, combat training centres or at deployed locations.

Sébastien Lozé, Industry Manager Simulations at Epic Games told MS&T training at the point of need has been “a desire and a goal running in all simulation programs for the last 10 years. What is different today is that the technology (cloud, hardware readiness, 5G) is making it possible. Add to this the worldwide health challenge that we all face together, then the context becomes more popular than ever to prioritize these subjects which are usually remaining R&D and obscure labs projects.” Lozé continued “We went from a desire to an absolutely undiscussed need.”

Oli Arup, VP Product Management at Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) told us “I think what Covid-19 has done is force the hand of people in training and although distributed training concepts have been around for some time what this situation has done is forced them to the forefront of people's mind. If you cannot get together in a training facility, then you have to start taking advantage of it.”

Looking to the future Arup continued “we're seeing it more and more where every country is moving more towards reservists troops with less infrastructure trying to maintain currency right now and so you have to start thinking about how you get training to the point of need. We are looking at how we can better support distributed training with geographically dispersed training communities.”

Arup believes there is still much to learn from the gaming world, for example how Twitch is being used so that trainees can watch online training, just like gaming communities watch games and learn tactics. “For me, its a mindset of I can do this in gaming, I can watch someone's game from anywhere in the world. Why can't I do this training?” Arup said.

Also looking at the current generation of trainees, Seppo Aaltonen, Chief Commercial Officer of XR product company Varjo explained, “We see how the next generation are so good at mixing and matching games to music and instant messaging services across timezones. Many organisations are competing to get the attention of this talent and you will see the younger generation expecting and demanding some of the tools that they are used to in the living room and coming up for them in the professional environment. So, I think this is going happen, and maybe sooner than some organisations expect.”

There has of course been an immediate and necessary shift to remote working and training and for those employees who have the necessary technology this has worked. However, the picture is uneven, with challenges for many to overcome such as reliable Internet connections, processing power, downloading files, cybersecurity, and the like.

David Burden Manging Director of 3D/VR immersive learning and conversational AI company Daden Limited has been working in the professional training and educational field for over 15 years and told MS&T, “I've been using VR with clients who had a pool of equipment but people are not now coming in and so they're now back to whatever they have at home…you still have to have that traditional 2D/3D type interface in these training environments as well (as VR).”

Many companies are seeing shifts in the market. Aaltonen told MS&T, “Firstly, we are seeing leading companies thinking about how they enable their own people to do remote training themselves, so providing training kit for people at home to maintain and lift their skill levels. Secondly, I think we will see people forming into small teams online from home and then connecting into bigger networks and training together.”

Aaltonen continued “we see that the whole field of remote collaboration and remote training has had a boost and some of it is so good we don't need to travel to every occasion, we can do half of them remotely and half of them face to face. Different models of working are now emerging quicker than we would have without this pandemic.”

Continuity but with New Protocols

Governments the world over have declared their militaries as essential services and accordingly many training centres have remained open. For example, CAE reported that 90% of their operations have continued throughout the pandemic. There have however, been changes in working practices as companies have worked to ensure that they can safely operate. New protocols have been developed by CAE for training centres and by Varjo for XR equipment. Even with centres remaining open, travel restrictions for both staff and students has inevitably caused some issues and required new ways of working. The International Test Pilots School (ITPS) Canada has like many other centres started to include online short courses to its international customers. The added benefit of the online training format is that it allows students to review many of their subjects before attending the practical training.

Based on Epic Games' Unreal Engine, here individual users can meet from anywhere in the world to discuss CAD data using VR. Image credit: Daimler Protics.

Another perhaps unforeseen consequence of social distancing has been its impact on instructors who previously worked close to trainees, for example within flight simulators. Training providers such as CAE have now placed instructor stations outside the simulators providing all the access and visibility of the activities within the simulator, such that the instructors are remote, but still close and co located.

Joe Armstrong - Vice President Business Operations, Products and Solutions, Global Defence & Security at CAE sees these developments as part of a trend and “instead of having to worry about repositioning and replacing and moving people all over the world, the idea of having a centralised capability, not centralised by geography, but virtually centralised to access a pool of talent that can then be delivered as a training service or instructor service to anybody anywhere in the world creating a level of flexibility that we've never seen before in our industry.”

For some training there has been little choice other than to deliver online. Paul Thurkettle NATO ACT’s e-Learning Programme Manager told MS&T that “the pandemic has caused major disruptions to our ability to deliver training, and we are working hard to adapt and transition to distributed delivery. This we hope will also lead to long term adoption and re-inventing NATO's education and training capabilities.” As an example, the Joint Force Training Centre (JFTC) working with ACT rapidly delivered pre-deployment training for NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) preparing over 50 recorded lessons, lectures, on-line meetings, and live chats.

The Military S&T Community Responds Rapidly

Much of the world locked down at broadly the same time forcing workforces to stay at home and restricting travel for many particularly those reliant on public transport. MS&T has spoken to many in the S&T community and for the most part operations have continued without too much hiatus. Arup told us “it is interesting seeing how people have gravitated towards this (remote) tech and adapted quickly. We are a company of 300 people thereabouts and it probably took us two weeks to three weeks for everyone to be working from home.”

Varjo’s XR technology together with MeetinVR software can blend the real and virtual worlds supporting real time collaboration from anywhere in the world. Image credit: Varjo.

Companies also had to find new ways of reaching out to their customers and the broader industry as shows such as IT2EC 2020 were postponed and cancelled. MAK Technologies (formerly VT MAK) launched their “Lunch with MAK” within days of the March 2020 lockdown with twice-weekly Zoom interactive briefs on their products and S&T technology in general. Other examples of interactive webinars for the community have been the Pitch Café events by Pitch Technologies, CAE’s OneWorld, Antycip Tech Talks, Unreal Fest Online, Varjo Workspaces, and BISim’s VBS Technology Conference which had 200 international attendees in one session and over 500 over three days. Live conferences that were cancelled have moved successfully online including NATO’s Training Technology Conference (NTTC) and the US Training & Simulation Industry Symposium (TSIS).

As well as online events, companies have moved to provide support through free software licensing, such as MAK’s 30-day work-from-home licenses and BISim’s 90-day licenses for conducting distributed virtual simulation training using VBS3 and VBS4 for the whole of 2020.

The Journey from 2D to 3D Interactive

Much of the interaction we have with others remains in the 2D world whether it is Zoom or PowerPoint or indeed MS&T publications. The world of simulation is very much 3D however, and with advances in technology and the demands for more remote working and training many expect 3D or virtual interaction becoming more commonplace. Burden told MS&T “it does feel like a technology whose time has come. We are already seeing an increase in the use of the technology for virtual events and using it for remote training and learning is surely the next step. The focus may well be on the ‘immersive 3D’ approach if students do not have XR headsets. You do, however, need to be able to create your own content so you can scale and adapt to student need – rather than commissioning ‘one-offs’.”

Epic Games are taking their 3D Unreal Engine interactive technology from the gaming world and making it available for other sectors to support remote working, collaboration, and training. Lozé told MS&T “our technology allows networked teams to collaborate on projects, create interactive virtual experiences accessible from anywhere and virtually teleport you to your working or training environment.“ MS&T was shown (remotely) Unreal online multi-user 3D interactive tools in support of car design that with VR support can be used to move virtual objects, explode views, and enables multiple creators to make changes simultaneously to the same project safely and reliably.

In the XR space, Varjo have partnered with Danish enterprise virtual 3D collaboration software company MeetinVR. This will provide the ability to mix virtual and real-life environments and participants in visual quality augmented with human interaction such as (virtual) handshakes.

How the military S&T community itself interacts may also change in future with more 3D-based online events. Virtual 3D events have been held during the lockdowns in immersive 3D environments such as ENGAGE, VirBELA, AltspaceVR, Spatial, Glue, and the long standing Second Life. Daden’s Burden told us such technology could play a significant role in bringing practitioners together in future instead of live events “I find it interesting that a lot of conferences are going online where in the past physically I couldn't justify going to that conference. The fact is online really opens up far more opportunities for me to go to events that I would otherwise not have been able to get to. It is then a question of trying to get a better form of virtual conference. I think it will be interesting to see if the likes of VirBELA and ENGAGE try to make a play for this (3D conferencing) space”.

Virtual 3D environments look set to extend to a whole range of events. Gamerjibe for example has been used by the US Marines as an online 3D recruitment fair with interaction through avatars.

Only the Beginning - The Digitisation of Training

Just a few months into the global pandemic significant changes have been made in training delivery and the workplace in general. How many of these changes will become permanent in the longer term and to what degree is not known. Arup views the changes as an acceleration of existing trends prior to the pandemic and are “reinforcing our roadmap and our drive towards use of technology”.

Epic’s Lozé told MS&T it is “only the beginning … we are in the middle of the largest global exercise to evaluate what is working and what is not.” What is clear to Lozé is that a long-term transformation will not be achievable until the “training experience” has been fully digitised. This theme of digitisation is echoed by CAE’s Armstrong: “If you think about what we do with virtual environments, our job is representing the world in a synthetic way or in a different way, and then making it consumable by the people that actually have to operate it, whether they are students going through a training system or they are decision makers.” This digitisation is not only aimed at the training system, it also will support more effective training. “It is no longer about measuring just the performance of a training system, it is about understanding the mechanism that we deliver training and the impact that that training delivery actually has on human performance,” Armstrong said.