Small Booths with Big Ideas at I/ITSEC

15 December 2021

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First-time exhibitors at I/ITSEC catered to the rise of digital natives. MS&T’s Ken Storey explored some off-the-main-aisle booths featuring bold thinking and aspirations.

A large group gathered at a booth tucked along the back wall of the I/ITSEC expo floor to check out a first-time exhibitor. Cadets from the Air Force and Space Force battled against each other as attendees watched in anticipation. But this battle simulation wasn’t using the latest flight simulator or VR concept; this was taking place on a Nintendo Wii.

Air Force Gaming (AFG) formed in 2019, just months before the last in-person I/ITSEC, but this was their first year exhibiting at the expo. Unlike many of the other booths, AFG was here to show a more civil side of gaming, one that focuses on the one in three people under 35 years old who identify as a gamer. Their presence at the expo is indicative of an evolutionary step taking place across the simulation and training industry. As Millennials and Gen Z grow their presence across the military, these digital natives have an understanding of technology that is upending long-held relationships between technology and training.

Senior Airman Ian ‘Speed’ Pierce is hopeful gaming can be used to bridge the gaps between these emerging digital native generations and older generations found in leadership positions across the military and simulation industries. ‘Speed,’ as he’s known within the Discord (messaging app) gaming community, is an F-22 Raptor crew chief, but it was his role as an eSports advisor for Air Force Gaming that brought him to I/ITSEC. For ‘Speed,’ showcasing what the AFG group is up to is about more than just professional-level gaming talent; it’s about helping to ensure newer generations are set up for success in an increasingly digitally reliant world.

“It is not just about video games; it's about the professional development of this younger generation. Meeting these airmen in a virtual, digital world will better prepare them to be leaders after they're out. We are the next set of leaders to follow, and if we cannot prepare the airmen now for what the future holds, then we've already set them up for failure. So, through Air Force Gaming, we can develop these airmen at such a younger age and at a lower rank that by the time they get to that supervision role, they are ready to take on the digital challenges that are to come.”

Robert Dough of Brightline Interactive sees the emergence of a new generation as promising but notes while younger generations may be more familiar with technology, thanks in part due to the gaming culture they were born into, the merging of technology with the rise of digital natives in leadership positions is only possible thanks to the guidance older generations continue to exhibit. “I think that there's a lot for all of us to learn from each other, no matter what the generation is. I think when you have a lot of these converging technologies that we're seeing happening right now, there's a lot of different viewpoints and a lot of different expertise starting to come together,” explained Dough, Vice President of Products and Partnerships at Brightline. He continued, “What I think that does is actually increase our ability to provide simulation and training that's highly effective. So, we might be a newer generation, there might be newer technology, but it all is here because of what came before it. Then it's kind of laying the roadmap for the type of training that we're going to have in the future as well.”

Accelerating change was more than a theme of this year’s event. At the start of his speech during Tuesday’s keynote ceremonies, Captain Daniel Covelli, USN, began by honoring Diana Teel, ‘Chief Evangelist’ (Outreach Director) at NAWCTSD, ahead of her retirement from the role next year. After the generational defining moment that has been the past year and a half, a running theme at this year’s I/ITSEC was the changing of leadership. At booth after booth, there were well wishes as many prepared for what will be their last convention ahead of retirement.

From massive booths due to business acquisitions to a bevy of first-time exhibitors, after a strictly virtual conference last year, this year’s I/ITSEC trade floor buzzed with talk of the changes that have occurred and the ones still in the works. Some things, like L3/Link’s famed Texas chili, could still be found during the week, though due to the recent acquisition, that chili was now part of the large Wednesday hospitality event hosted by CAE.

While CAE had the largest booth in I/ITSEC’s history (combining the already purchased spaces of CAE and L3Harris), a few aisles over first-time exhibitor BadVR had a small booth made of tables and televisions they purchased the day before the expo. Co-founder and CTO at BadVR, Jad Meouchy, acknowledged the globally recognized legacy exhibitors at the event can be somewhat overwhelming. Still, he remained steadfast in his focus on introducing BadVR’s data-driven visual offerings. “When we enter into an environment like this, it's a bit intimidating. However, we're seeing that there's an appreciation on both sides of the table. We appreciate the guidance, the leadership, and the experience. They appreciate the youthful energy, the new approaches, and the new concepts. I really think that it's a combination of the two.”

VR has lowered the barrier of entry into the military simulation and training domain, enabling upstarts to challenge or partner with major players. Image credit: BadVR.

“We saw the technology going in the direction of just getting big and bulky. And it was really powerful, of course, but it just seemed like nobody was thinking about the user's experience,” explains Meouchy. “If this stuff is going to be the size of a pair of sunglasses or contact lenses, you can't rely on having giant resources with it.”

Meouchy acknowledges the need to partner with the legacy exhibitors that towered over BadVR’s booth. “We're going to need a relationship with the big companies, and they're going to need the new stuff that we bring. But yeah, we're a little bit younger, and a little bit, you know, fresher, a little bit more wide-eyed, and, probably, more naive, but all that means is we just take a different approach. And I think that's the disruptive element of it, the alternate approach.”

While buzzwords like ‘metaverse’ and ‘digital twin’ were dropped at every chance, the fusion of augmented and physical realities is already something many of the conference’s younger attendees have become accustomed to.

During his TalX session on how the gaming community helped him, AFG co-founder Captain Zach Baumann, USAF, stated how the gaming community model could help the Department of Defense become healthier. “Could it be that this infamous waste of time [as many people refer to gaming] is actually one of the most cutting-edge ways to accelerate and enable the velocity of people into the future? The velocity of people is a measurement of the rate at which collisions happen in a society or an organization. The higher velocity of people, the healthier the organization.”

For Millennials and Gen Zers like Baumann, Pierce, and others, gaming and immersive tech isn’t something novel or foreign; it’s a part of their identity. With gaming systems, smartphones, and other connected devices being a part of their reality since birth, using technology like simulators and XR is expected from them. “Generation Z and Millennials were raised with video games in a way that prior generations were not. The interface between those human beings and simulated environments, it's natural. It's inborn. It's something that they don't need to learn. They just know how to do it,” notes HaptX Chief Revenue Officer Joe Michaels, in speaking with MS&T regarding how younger people seem to be faster learners when first handling the company’s life-like touch haptic gloves. “People of a younger generation don't need much instruction with our gloves, they get in, and they just start using them. And one of the reasons that the older generation in the military is so excited about this is because they think the next generations coming up will not just enjoy this type of technology; they’ll expect it. And so, we're trying to keep up with their expectations.”

That same message was shared by Baumann in his talk. “This whole conference has so many conversations about the next generation of leaders and what tech are they going to need to be savvy with to get there. And the DoD is trying to train, develop, and find every piece of digital fluency that's out. Someone needs to let them know that we have a pretty good spot,” explains Baumann. “And if there's one thing I've learned from this journey of building this thing with some of my greatest friends, if you want to accelerate change, you must first accelerate people. Air Force Gaming is accelerating people at a time when it’s most critical that we do so. This is no waste of time. This is the future.”

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