The U.S. Army is implementing the latest in computer simulation and gaming technology to train soldiers in counter-insurgency, detecting roadside bombs and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Computer simulations of Baghdad neighborhoods, bomb-making facilities insurgent ambushes and IED attacks are conditioning soldiers for combat. The games — developed through a partnership between the Army and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) — involve a unique blend of story-telling, creativity and cutting-edge computer technology designed to realistically portray complex, fast-changing scenarios.
The partnership is one of the Army’s University Affiliated Research Centers where research and development dollars are invested to advance technology for the armed forces. “We are sponsored by the Army to be a crossroads between academic research in the areas of virtual reality, graphics, virtual humans, mixed reality, and intelligent tutoring. We provide that academic expertise and it is a crossroads between that and the entertainment industry. It is leveraging the technologies to create applications that are more engaging and more effective as training tools than what has been seen before,” said Randall Hill, executive director, USC ICT.
Gaming technologies from USC ICT have been used in major Hollywood films. For the past ten years USC ICT’s graphics lab has been developing technologies to realistic represent the subject in a digital format, Hill said.
Urban Sim is the main counter-insurgency training game. It places soldiers in portions of Baghdad and confronts them with dynamic, interconnected combat-zone circumstances.
The game, now in use at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and planned for Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Benning, Ga., is engineered to represent the complexity of life in war-torn Baghdad. “We’ll simulate a big chunk of Baghdad and simulate major urban populations. It forces the commander or the player to manage all his resources to figure out what is going on in the city,” said Hill.
“It is a combination of that with an underlying social simulation that represents the population and different groups within that population. It is a very sophisticated model which allows you to take actions, create policy or give out information and then you can see how the population reacts to it,” said Hill.
The game is programmed with intricate computer algorithms which recreate the population dynamics of mutually hostile groups or those antagonistic to the U.S. presence.
Players are presented with complex challenges including how to rebuild a school, confront insurgents, restore power or fix sewers in various parts of the city. “For instance, in the game you are looking at a particular neighborhood or a city and you might be trying to restore the power there or get the market working so that there is commerce going on. You never know that the second and third order affects are going to be. You may find you are creating some instability in the economy by overpaying people in that particular part of the neighborhood, thus creating tensions between groups within the city. Part of what we are trying to train is how to recognize that — when you take an action that has the best of intentions — if it is not thought out it can have negative consequences,” Hill said.
The Mobile Counter-IED Interactive Trainer, or MCIT, immerses soldiers in the dynamics of making, encountering and avoiding IEDs. The exercise requires four classrooms, one of which is an apartment or IED workshop.
Created on the model of a Hollywood set, players are exposed to the look and feel of the actual site.
Training divides soldiers into red and blue teams. The red team emplaces IEDs, and the “blue” team drives mock humvees through the IED-infested terrain and trys to anticipate their location based on the topography. Red and blue teams then change roles and repeat the exercise.
Over 7,500 soldiers have completed training with the MCIT at Fort Bragg, N.C., Camp Shelby, La., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. An MCIT is also scheduled for Fort Campbell, Ky. Funding is from the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization.
Virtual Iraq or Virtual Afghanistan is a virtual reality system for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The simulation, under the supervision of a trained therapist, is designed to help those afflicted with PTSD by safely and carefully exposing them to the stimuli and conditions that caused the trauma.
“The theory behind this is that when people have experienced a trauma and they have PTSD, one of the only therapies I have heard of for treating it is called exposure therapy. The idea is to try to help them relive and think of the situations and re-expose themselves mentally to situations where they experienced the trauma. But it is all a mental exercise — what virtual Iraq does is it puts a tool into the hands of a therapist,” said Hill.
Soldiers drive a mock Humvee through the desert controlled by a therapist who gradually exposes the driver to stimuli such as explosions or insurgent attacks.
Over several sessions soldiers are deconditioned to realize that every loud noise is not an enemy explosion. During therapy patients can relate their experiences and through “virtual reality” slowly be re-exposed to the stimuli that are actually setting them off,” Hill said.
In a pilot study with Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan, 75-to-80 percent of the subjects went from a high level of stress on the PTSD scale down to a normal level. A larger study is now underway to verify these findings and assess MCIT’s impact in a clinical setting, according to Hill.
Col. Craig Langhauser, director of the Army Simulation, Training and Technology Center in Orlando, Fla., and Army trainers are optimistic that Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan has a positive affect on soldiers. “We’re still in the initial development stages. We will be getting funding in 2011 to go out and do field test. Whenever you are engaging new technology with human beings, you need to be sure there are no secondary effects that you do not anticipate.”