Army takes a flier on OpenSim

Training center deploys alpha version of open source project to build Second-Life style virtual world grid

The U.S. Army is not new to using simulated virtual environments for training. In fact, almost all soldiers have used virtual simulations, according to Douglas Maxwell, the science and technology manager for virtual world strategic applications at the Army's Simulation & Training Technology Center in Orlando.

The problem is that, for the most part, each individual simulation is designed with a specific purpose - and it can take months of development, and require the combined efforts of subject matter experts, instructional designers, 3D artists and developers.

"You do one unit of training, in one software simulation, and you move on," he says. "I wanted to create a general-purpose trainer, with persistence in-world. You log in and start where you left off from."

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A few years ago, the military discovered Second Life, where users without any professional modeling or development background can quickly and cheaply create unique interactive environments through a combination of easy-to-use in-world building tools, and a wealth of ready-to-use, inexpensive virtual world content like buildings, vehicles, weapons, clothing and terrains.

"It was a radical departure from the way we were normally doing training," Maxwell says. "It had a lot of potential."

Second Life itself, however, wasn't a practical option. The military needed a secure platform, one that could run completely behind the firewall, with access restricted to only approved personnel.

The Simulation & Training Technology Center turned to OpenSim, an open-source project that allows anyone with a server to host a Second Life-style virtual world grid. Work began in 2010 and, today, the Army's MOSES grid is about 3,000 square acres of virtual land, or about 4.5 square miles, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, login credentials and a virtual worlds viewer. Currently, a separate, standalone viewer such as Firestorm is necessary to access OpenSim grids, Second Life, and most other virtual environments but as HTML 5 support improves, browser-based access will become possible.

MOSES, which stands for Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy, is a shared environment used not only by the military, but also by approved outside training experts and virtual world developers. The programming is done by a mix of Army civilian employees, such as Maxwell himself, and contractors who create the 3D mesh models. A total of 50 people have worked on content development for MOSES and on the Unreal 3-based project, EDGE (Enhanced Dynamic GeoSocial Environment). The two projects can use the same content, since 3d mesh models can be uploaded to both platforms.

It is used to design training simulations for soldiers, to hold virtual meetings, and to expand the potential uses of the virtual world technology. "I'm really impressed with OpenSimulator," Maxwell says. "For being an open source project, you get a tremendous amount of capability."

OpenSim includes support for vehicles and in-world scripting, as well as avatar appearance editing, inventories, payments, groups, search and instant messages. In fact, OpenSim currently offers users almost all the functionality available in Second Life, plus functions only available in OpenSim, such as the ability to export entire regions, support over a thousand avatars in a single region, or teleport between different, separate worlds.

The biggest downside of OpenSim, at this point, is that the graphics are lower-quality than those in the latest consumer video games. "Whenever you put OpenSim in front of a 21-year-old soldier used to playing Medal of Honor, that's the first thing they notice," Maxwell says.

Avatars can be more life-like in a high-end engine as well, he says, with better joint articulation. "Inside the higher-fidelity engines, you can go down to the finger level if you want to, so if you're grabbing a weapon or climbing ladders, it looks a lot more natural."

But once the soldiers start to walk around inside the environment, they immediately notice that they have more capabilities than they do in any video game.

"In particular, in Fort Hood, Texas, I had a sergeant who wants to use this in his job at the Resilience Center, where they do suicide prevention and outreach," he says. "They like the anonymity - I've been told that the soldiers tend to open up more when they're in there."

Simulating simulations

One major function of the MOSES grid is to prototype virtual simulations. Trainers can log into the world, quickly design environments, try them out on volunteers, and make changes in real time. Then, when the simulation is finalized, it can be recreated in a high-end gaming engine like Unreal 3 for mass deployment.

For example, a training arena about half a mile on a side, or 144 virtual acres, can take six weeks to build in OpenSim. A similar level in a regular game engine would take six months to a year, Maxwell says.

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The grid has already proved itself as a testing ground for functionality that will be ported to other platforms.

For example, OpenSim allows terrains to change in real-time. Not only can a training designer quickly lift up the terrain to create a mountain, or lower it to create rivers and lakes, but terrains can also be affected by scripted objects.

A bomb, for example, can create a crater in the ground when it explodes. And if the crater isn't big enough, the script on the bomb can be quickly adjusted by a trainer so that the next explosion is bigger - without having to shut down and restart the whole environment. Similarly, a trainer can rearrange the position of the explosive devices, so that soldiers don't simply memorize their positions.

"Even simple things we take for granted, like being able to modify your avatar's appearance, you don't normally do in a training simulation," Maxwell says.

The MOSES grid is also used for research, to explore what can be done with virtual environments, and to collaborate with outside experts.

For example, virtual worlds learning expert Jim McDermott, founder of the FRG Institute and a professor of instructional design at Capella University, has one 16-acre region on MOSES that he uses to build virtual holodecks designed to teach science and engineering concepts. Each group that uses MOSES can control the access to their regions, limiting it to particular groups or individuals, or permitting access to all grid users.

"But the power of the virtual world is not resident in technology," he says. "It's resident in collaboration. That's really why I'm in MOSES. It's for the collaboration among people who have a very high level of experience in the virtual world, being brought together to share ideas."

In addition to allowing selected outside researchers access to the MOSES grid, Maxwell's team has also made a version of MOSES available for others to download. So far, about two dozen other government agencies have requested copies of the MOSES system, he says.

The OpenSim infrastructure

In many respects, OpenSim is similar to popular Web server projects, like Apache. Users have a choice of viewers that they can use to access OpenSim worlds, and only the region the user is looking at is downloaded at any given time.

This is in contrast to most immersive multi-user online role playing games, where the entire world is installed ahead of time, and can be accessed only via a single proprietary viewer.

As a result, when a user enters a brand-new OpenSim environment, it can take from a few seconds to a few minutes to download all the local content - terrains, buildings, plants, scripts and so forth. But when a user decides to put up a new building, it's instantly visible and accessible to all the other visitors to the area.

OpenSim is also lightweight enough that an entire system - server, viewer, and a few dozen acres of virtual land - can be run off a USB stick.

"We were able to place the OpenSim server on portable laptops and show demos to high-level decision makers," Maxwell says. "When we're able to show these concepts running in real time in front of the decision makers, that allowed for initial acceptance. We got a lot of backing from leadership based on those demonstrations."

The initial acceptance came even though OpenSim, in 2010, was still lacking key functionality. There was no support for uploading standard mesh objects -- OpenSim only supported the creation or import of objects in Second Life's format, not objects created in Maya, Blender, or other popular 3D modeling programs. This changed in 2011, when the OpenSim developers added support for the popular Collada standard for mesh.

There was also no support for in-world media back then, though that was also quickly addressed. In-world media allows interactive Web pages to be projected on any surface, allowing access to videos, photographs, after-action reports, even interactive tools like Microsoft Office Live. "It's incredibly useful," Maxwell says.

Supportive environment

Unlike commercial virtual world platforms, there is no single vendor to call on for support. There are a number of OpenSim hosting and consulting companies, however, and the open source community itself can also be a resource.

"We've enjoyed tremendous support, unusual support, from the open source community," Maxwell says. "Without exception, everyone we have reached out to had been helpful and gracious. We got lots of advice from Justin Clark-Casey and other [OpenSim developers] in helping us diagnose problems and troubleshoot."

OpenSim, after all, is still an evolving platform. According to OpenSim core developer Clark-Casey, the OpenSim software is currently "alpha" code. "There are a number of features that don't work very well, and we don't have formal APIs - people just call internal methods," he says.

The main problem is that creating a generalized platform for virtual worlds is a huge project. "This is complicated stuff," Clark-Casey says. "You always have a backlog of bugs. Some of this stuff you would never hit in typical situations - there's just a large surface area for these issues."

Despite this, there are already successful businesses using OpenSim as a platform, including commercial virtual worlds like InWorldz and Kitely.

The software is currently being used to power around 240 public virtual worlds, in addition to an unknown number of private business, education and personal grids. It has been downloaded an estimated 74,000 times since May 2010.

"I'm aware that people are starting to use it for commercial purposes," Clark-Casey says. "But we are at the very early stage, still trying to figure out what it's good for."

The alternatives

According to Douglas, the STCC looked at a number of other virtual world environments, both enterprise-friendly proprietary platforms like SAIC's Olive, and video game engines like Unreal and Crytec.

"We understand that there's no one size fits all," he says. "No one product satisfies all of our graphic needs."

Sometimes, what the Army needs most is high graphic fidelity, he says, such as when soldiers are being trained to spot Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). Other times, what's important is the highest possible accuracy in physics.

"Sometimes you need a system that's very light on the network," he added. "Sometimes you need a very flexible system."

Scalability and cost also come into play, he added, as do license terms.

"We do understand that an engine can be proprietary," he says. "We don't have a problem with that. But whenever you buy content packs for those engines, and they're only for use with that engine and can't be reused in any other way, we see that as wasteful. We should not have to buy a HMMWV over and over again."

Where to get it

Enterprises interested in trying out OpenSim can request a free copy of the MOSES environment for their own use. It comes with the server software, a customized client, and a 64-acre welcome area with a pre-built conference center. Companies can also download and install OpenSim from OpenSimulator.org.

Another option is to get grid hosting from a vendor like Dreamland Metaverse, which currently runs hundreds of grids for customers - companies, educational institutions, even individuals.

"About three quarters are closed, private grids for sales training," says Dreamland Metaverse CEO and founder Dierk Brunner. There are also schools using private virtual worlds for educational simulations, like Georgia's Forsyth County Schools, where several small grids are used to teach math, science, and other subjects.

Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at maria@tromblyinternational.com.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

This story, "Army takes a flier on OpenSim" was originally published by Network World.

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