How Virtual Reality Military Applications Work

By: Jonathan Strickland

Virtual Reality Image Gallery Guests try out the Virtual Army Experience, which tours the country as part of the Armed Forces’ recruiting strategy. See more virtual reality pictures.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army, photo by Hannah M. Hayner

From the earliest moments in the history of virtual reality (VR), the United States military forces have been a driving factor in developing and applying new VR technologies. Along with the entertainment industry, the military is responsible for the most dramatic evolutionary leaps in the VR field. In this article, we'll look at how the military uses virtual reality for most everything -- from learning to fly a jet fighter to putting out a fire on board a ship.

Virtual environments work well in military applications. When well designed, they provide the user with an accurate simulation of real events in a safe, controlled environment. Specialized military training can be very expensive, particularly for vehicle pilots. Some training procedures have an element of danger when using real situations. While the initial development of VR gear and software is expensive, in the long run it's much more cost effective than putting soldiers into real vehicles or physically simulated situations. VR technology also has other potential applications that can make military activities safer.


That's why when engineers first began to experiment with head-mounted displays (HMD), the military took notice. Both the Navy and the Air Force funded some of the earliest work in developing effective HMDs. The first HMDs weren't linked to a virtual environment -- they were linked to a camera. Engineers mounted a camera to a servo-controlled base (a base platform connected to one or more motors that adjust the position of the base by rotating or tilting the platform).

A user wearing the HMD could control where the camera pointed by turning his head in different directions. In an early application of this technique, Bell Helicopter Company mounted an infrared camera on the bottom of a helicopter. The chopper pilot could get an unprecedented look at the terrain beneath his vehicle when flying at night, making it safer to land in difficult conditions.

Today, the military uses VR techniques not only for training and safety enhancement, but also to analyze military maneuvers and battlefield positions. In the next section, we'll look at the various simulators commonly used in military training. ­

Flight Simulators

The Future Combat System simulator can recreate the experience of driving many different vehicles, even doubling as a flight simulator.
The Future Combat System simulator can recreate the experience of driving many different vehicles, even doubling as a flight simulator.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army, photo by Eamonn Bourke

Out of all the earliest VR technology applications, military vehicle simulations have probably been the most successful. Simulators use sophisticated computer models to replicate a vehicle's capabilities and limitations within a stationary -- and safe -- computer station.

Possibly the most well-known of all the simulators in the military are the flight simulators. The Air Force, Army and Navy all use flight simulators to train pilots. Training missions may include how to fly in battle, how to recover in an emergency, or how to coordinate air support with ground operations.


All three branches use hardware developed by the military as well as from third-party vendors. Because of this, many of the flight simulators they use are different from one another. Often, this can cause difficulty when linking systems together -- simulated enemies may not appear in the same point of space for multiple pilots, for example. Currently, there's a big push to create better networks among simulators to facilitate coordinated training missions.

Although flight simulators may vary from one model to another, most of them have a similar basic setup. The simulator sits on top of either an electronic motion base or a hydraulic lift system that reacts to user input and events within the simulation. As the pilot steers the aircraft, the module he sits in twists and tilts, giving the user haptic feedback. The word "haptic" refers to the sense of touch, so a haptic system is one that gives the user feedback he can feel. A joystick with force-feedback is an example of a haptic device.

Some flight simulators include a completely enclosed module, while others just have a series of computer monitors arranged to cover the pilot's field of view. Ideally, the flight simulator will be designed so that when the pilot looks around, he sees the same controls and layout as he would in a real aircraft. Because one aircraft can have a very different cockpit layout than another, there isn't a perfect simulator choice that can accurately represent every vehicle. Some training centers invest in multiple simulators, while others sacrifice accuracy for convenience and cost by sticking to one simulator model.

In the next section, we'll look at VR simulators for ground vehicles and submarines.

On the Ground and In the Water

This simulator helps teach soldiers how to drive the Stryker armored vehicle.
This simulator helps teach soldiers how to drive the Stryker armored vehicle.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army, photo by Jason Kaye

Ground Vehicle Simulators

Although not as high profile as flight simulators, VR simulators for ground vehicles are an important part of the military's strategy. In fact, simulators are a key part of the Future Combat System (FCS) -- the foundation of the armed forces' future. The FCS consists of a networked battle command system and advanced vehicles and weapons platforms. Computer scientists designed FCS simulators to link together in a network, facilitating complex training missions involving multiple participants acting in various roles.

The FCS simulators include three computer monitors and a pair of joystick controllers attached to a console. The modules can simulate several different ground vehicles, including non-line-of-sight mortar vehicles, reconnaissance vehicles or an infantry carrier vehicle.


The Army uses several specific devices to train soldiers to drive specialized vehicles like tanks or the heavily-armored Stryker vehicle. Some of these look like long-lost twins to flight simulators. They not only accurately recreate the handling and feel of the vehicle they represent, but also can replicate just about any environment you can imagine. Trainees can learn how the real vehicle handles in treacherous weather conditions or difficult terrain. Networked simulators allow users to participate in complex war games.

Virtual reality tank simulator
Virtual reality tank simulator

Simulators can be pretty expensive. The newest Stryker simulator costs about $800,000 per unit. Still, when you compare that against the cost of an actual vehicle (which, depending upon the model variant, could be millions of dollars) and keep in mind that the soldier behind the controls will be safe from harm, it's easy to justify the cost.

Today, many training facilities are using simulators to familiarize soldiers with urban combat tactics. Today's battlefields are much different from those of previous eras, with soldiers venturing into cities and towns rather than drawing traditional battle lines. Simulators give the military a chance to teach soldiers how to navigate and operate effectively within urban landscapes --  without having to construct a physical artificial environment.

Water Vehicle Simulators

Navy submarine simulators are different from other military-vehicle simulators. There are no windows to the outside world on board a sub, so there isn't a need for lifelike graphics. Submarine simulators instead must provide realistic instrument readings as the crew navigates through the simulation. Some submarine simulators are stationary, which can detract from a user's sense of immersion. Others, however, are mounted on a set of pneumatic arms that can tilt the module, allowing it to physically simulate a diving or surfacing maneuver.

Another impressive Naval application of virtual environments is the virtual bridge. The navigation, seamanship and ship-handling trainer (NSST) accurately replicates the bridge of a large Navy ship. The simulator has dozens of computer monitors, some that serve as the bridge's windows and some that serve as ship monitors. Navy bridge teams can train together through various scenarios, building teamwork and ship-handling skills in the process.

In the next section, we'll look at how the military uses virtual environments to train foot soldiers.

Virtual Boot Camp

Virtual reality military training gear
Virtual reality military training gear

Apart from familiarizing soldiers with some of the most complex vehicles in the military fleet, trainers have discovered that virtual environments can come in handy in other applications as well. Military officials and video game studios have partnered to create realistic, immersive virtual scenarios that help soldiers acclimate to various combat environments and situations. Nonmilitary gamers can even get a sample of some of these scenarios by playing popular commercial software games.

Pandemic Studios created a complex training simulation as part of the Future Combat Systems (FCS) initiative. Soldiers can practice small team tactics in a virtual urban environment. They use an Xbox console to run the game and take on the role of a team leader attempting to achieve specific objectives in various scenarios. Pandemic Studios later offered a modified version of the software as a commercial game, called "Full Spectrum Warrior."


Other games and simulations include "America's Army" and "Guard Force." The military recognizes that today's Armed Forces recruits have grown up in a culture where video games are common. Today, the military uses these games to help connect with recruits and give them a safe environment to practice techniques and skills. Some programs are web-based, allowing recruits to interact with experienced soldiers and learn about real-life techniques that can help keep them safe.

The Navy’s simulated bridge includes peripheral devices like the pair of binoculars seen here.
The Navy’s simulated bridge includes peripheral devices like the pair of binoculars seen here.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, photo by Jason McCammack

Some VR training applications go a step further than console games. While not common, some bases include larger virtual reality setups for more intensive training. Trainers use everything from CAVE systems to head-mounted displays and treadmills to reinforce concepts and techniques with trainees. Currently, only a few places have extensive virtual-environment training facilities, mostly because they're expensive to purchase and maintain. Results from pilot programs have been encouraging, though, and in the future more soldiers may log several hours flanking down pixilated enemies.

One such pilot program is the Virtual Squad Training System (VSTS), located at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Recently, the facility commissioned a new training system. It's a wearable and wireless system that allows soldiers to move unencumbered through a virtual environment with the help of the following virtual-reality gear:

  • A head-mounted display with a motion tracker
  • A special load-bearing vest that holds the batteries for the unit and a wireless computer unit
  • A body motion tracker (usually strapped to a leg)
  • A wireless weapon controller that matches the size, weight and shape of real military weapons.

Quantum3D, Inc. created the systems specifically for the military. They run on a specialized software package, but can also use a program called the BattleMaster IOS. The programs allow soldiers to train with simulated weapons like the M4, M165 or M249 while navigating a virtual combat environment.

Military officials are quick to stress that virtual training in no way replaces physical training. While virtual environments continue to support useful training applications, the military requires soldiers to undergo extensive training on real courses. The Armed Forces don't see virtual reality replacing real training techniques in the foreseeable future.

In the next section, we'll look at some other applications of virtual environments in the military.

Other Applications

The Dragon Battlefield Visualization System
The Dragon Battlefield Visualization System

Another application of virtual environments in the military is battlefield visualization. Battlefield visualization is vital when determining combat strategies in real time. It's also a key element in the training regimen of commanding officers. It helps commanders assess their options before making decisions that could put soldiers in harm's way.

Tools like Google Earth and SketchUp make creating three-dimensional maps easy and inexpensive. Today, military officials can explore a three-dimensional model of an area, viewing it from any angle while formulating strategies and looking for potential logistical problems.


The military has explored using a VR workbench as a display technology for battlefield visualization. The viewer wears a pair of special goggles that create the illusion of depth, so that the images displayed on the workbench appear to be three dimensional. Multiple users can view the same display at once, assuming they're all wearing the special goggles.

As personal computers and graphics cards become more powerful, the need for specialized display technology decreases. Today, a high-powered laptop can meet much of the military's needs for visualization. The military has found that it can adapt many commercial software and hardware packages for its own needs. You don't get the same level of immersion when working with a personal computer as you would with a dedicated VR system, but the computers are much less expensive and easy to network.

The military also uses virtual environments to prepare soldiers for emergencies. For example, the Navy Research Laboratory has the Virtual Environment Training Technology program. In this program, the Navy trains sailors how to deal with shipboard fires using a virtual environment. The program is still in the validation process, and many Navy officials hope it will allow sailors to train in dangerous techniques in a safe, controlled environment.

To learn more about virtual reality and its applications, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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