Modern warfare meets actual warfare

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Harrisburg University is also the home of the Virtusphere, a 10-foot-wide hollow plastic ball resting on a metal base that serves as a mobile environment for 3D simulations. Users don a head-mounted display and enter the ball, which then responds to their movement, rolling in place as they walk or change direction. The university is researching how to use the sphere to train law enforcement, first responders, and military combat personnel, says Petroski.

virtusphere600.jpgSource: Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

Not surprisingly, systems like the DSTS are a hit with younger soldiers who grew up immersed in the world of video gaming, says John Matthews, director of the Army's Dismounted Soldier project.

"The guys age 18 to 29 really love this thing," he says. "They have no problem adjusting to the toggle switch or the immersive environment. The older soldiers need a little more time to get used to it. But once older non-commissioned officers realize we can fit five days worth of training into just one day with this system, they get right on board with it."

Building this kind of sophisticated technology into a system that's both lightweight and rugged isn't cheap, however. The total price tag for each DSTS kit: roughly half million dollars, not counting the salaries of the two technicians that keep each kit up and running in the field, says Matthews.

The biggest challenge was getting enough computer horsepower into the system yet still have it remain relatively portable, says Anthony Howard, an IT consultant and book author (The Invisible Enemy: Black Fox) who helped architect the hardware infrastructure for Intelligent Decisions.

"The system needed to be powerful enough to meet the Army's requirements, light enough to be carried by two people, yet rugged enough to withstand the extreme weather conditions you might encounter," he says. "This was not your typical system."

Still, adds West, being able to bring the training to the soldiers wherever they are – even on the front lines – is ultimately less costly than transporting them to centralized training centers or building new facilities at each base.

The beauty of the DSTS lies in its flexibility, notes Matthews. As the US enters different war scenarios in real life, the virtual environments can be programmed to match them. The Army is working on ways to add haptic feedback to each soldier's gear – so if he or she is hit in the arm, they know exactly when and where it happened. And while the current system is built around the Virtual BattleSpace 2 (VBS2) gaming engine used in first-person shooters like Arma3, West says Intelligent Decisions is looking at more advanced gaming engines that can bring a greater degree of photo realism to the action.

"We are always trying to push it to the next level," says West. "Visual cues are very important in the field – you need to be able to see the disturbed soil or the discolored cement where an IED may have been placed. We owe it to our soldiers to bring them the highest fidelity we can muster."

This kind of public-private tech partnership is increasingly common, says Petroski.

"At one time it was the military that developed new technologies which eventually made their way to business," he says. "Now it's much more collaborative. Businesses can build prototypes more quickly in many cases, while the military can have a bigger impact on innovations that require large investments."

The bottom line, adds Howard, is that this technology will ultimately save lives.

"I was told the army had a problem," he says. "Sometimes the enemy was hiding out in places that had already been bombed. We were losing troops in cities we'd already taken. But using this system we can recreate the cities and show the troops how to clear them out and what to watch out for. And they can repeat it as often as they need until they get it right."

And that's something you can't really learn from Modern Warfare or Call of Duty.

"Unlike with the Xbox, you only get one life in the trenches," he says. "This technology helps our troops come home safely."

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