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Immersive technology melds Hollywood, warrior training

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 10, 2009) -- Training technology development in California has demonstrated the possibility of having Soldiers walk through virtual environments that contain both real-world objects and simulated characters.

The Army has enlisted the help of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California to push the limits of technology to create better, more immersive training environments for Soldiers.

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The "FlatWorld Wide Area Mixed Reality" demonstration was a 3-D gaming environment that didn't require Soldiers to wear a visor that would tether them to a computer. The environment melds concepts of stagecraft from Hollywood, including real-world props, with technology and projection screens, to make a virtual world Soldiers can move around in and interact with.

"We have walls where the outside is projected in. Where you can have virtual humans interact with you in the spaces, or where you can project bullet holes onto the walls," said Dr. Randall Hill Jr., executive director of ICT. "It is enabling Soldiers to make decisions under stress, to practice, and to get experiences they wouldn't normally get in the school house or even in their unit before they deploy."

Hill said it is possible to track a Soldier's movement throughout the environment and to then manipulate the environment based on the position of the Soldier. Eventually, he said, it may be possible to create infinitely sized virtual training areas inside a finite training space. By changing the content on the life-size training screens, for example, Soldiers could cycle through the same training environment multiple times, but always see a new scenario or simulated environment.

The ICT is located in Los Angeles, Calif., near Hollywood -- the heart of America's entertainment industry. The Institute is, said Hill, a "nexus" between the entertainment industry, academia and the Army.

"We believe the key here is engagement," Hill said. "That's where the entertainment industry comes in and that's where we are trying to bring that capability in -- the technologies that we are developing to support interactive digital media for the purpose of training and for actually a lot of other uses too."

Many projects at ICT are "people-focused," Hill said. One of the most visible, now being used by Army Accessions Command, is the "Sergeant Star" program. Sergeant Star first appeared on the Web site as a non-animated character that answers questions for site visitors. The ICT team was asked to turn Sergeant Star into something more.

Now, the virtual-NCO is available "in person" at Future Farmers of America events, NASCAR races and other venues where the Army reaches out to audiences for recruiting. Sergeant Star is projected at full size on a screen and can interact with potential Army recruits, answering questions about life in the Army, enlistment opportunities, and jobs in uniform.

Hill said Sergeant Star is a demonstration of the kind of "autonomous characters" ICT wants to include in virtual training environments -- characters that students can have meaningful interaction with.

"It's about being about to have a conversation with them, a social interaction with these characters," he said. The characters can reason about the environment, express emotion and communicate through not only speech, but also gesture, he said. "We want to give them the ability to perceive you and your gestures and facial expressions."

Hill said the Army could use more advanced versions of characters like Sergeant Star as training coaches or even as virtual patients where Soldiers are being trained to interact with somebody who may be a sexual assault victim.

Other ICT projects include the ELECT BiLAT social simulation. The immersive simulation allows Soldiers to learn negotiation skills with Iraqi leaders, where the student must pay special attention to cultural sensitivities and must negotiate a "win-win" agreement between both parties.

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