The Duke of Wellington once said the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In the future, battles may be won on the playing fields of the Xbox and PlayStation, or something much like them.
At sites like Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, US Army personnel are training for overseas deployment using simulated 3D environments designed to replicate what they'll encounter in Iraq or Afghanistan. They're sweeping out buildings, ducking enemy fire, and disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs) without ever leaving a 10-by-10-foot space in the middle of an otherwise empty building.
Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS), Intelligent Decisions
The Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) uses PCs, modern gaming engines, and virtual reality gear to simulate actual battlefield conditions, says Floyd West, director of simulation and training for Intelligent Decisions, which won the contract to build these units for the Army. The military recently deployed six of these systems to US bases, with another 30 set to ship out worldwide by the end of the year.
Every DSTS kit consists of 9 manned modules, each one featuring an immersive head-mounted display with microphone and speakers, a backpack CPU weighing between 12 and 15 pounds, a vest with embedded motion and pressure sensors, and a simulated weapon. There are also seven laptop workstations that allow military trainers to control the action, introduce new elements into the environment, and review how each soldier did after an exercise is completed.
Inside the DSTS, soldiers stand on a three-by-three-foot pad and move their avatars across a battlefield hundreds of meters in size using toggle switches on their simulated weapons. When a grunt ducks or hits the floor, so does his avatar, says West. Soldiers can see and communicate with nearby squad members. If a soldier gets hit by enemy fire, his display flashes red and his movement is impaired by the system. If he's shot in the arm or the leg, his avatar can't run or use that limb.
Dismounted Soldier Training System Video
"The soldiers are immersed in a full 3D virtual world," says West. "They can hear birds and the sound of bullets whizzing by. They can see and hear other squad members who are near them in the virtual environment, but otherwise they can't – even if the soldier is standing right next to them in the physical world."
Gaming has been a part of military training for centuries, notes Andy Petroski, director of the Learning Technologies Master of Science program at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. In the 1940s and 50s, the US military adopted simulations as a training strategy, he adds.
"The serious game industry is an offshoot of military simulators," says Petroski. "The technology and skillsets required to create games and simulations have simply gotten a lot more consumer-friendly and affordable."
But besides combat operations and flight sims, the military uses gaming software to train noncombat personnel in business-related tasks such as procurement, engineering, and facilities management, he adds.