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.
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.