After the smoke cleared in the lobby of Quantico Middle/High School, two women in burqas screamed and fled. A bearded man in a turban pointed down the hall, warning, “Stay away from that man.” The man in the hallway, in front of the principal’s office, was a suicide bomber.
A crowd of computer scientists and Marine Corps brass looked on calmly.
What happened in the middle/high school on the morning of July 26 was a demonstration of the latest in simulation technology, an “augmented reality training system” being developed by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and research and development company SRI Sarnoff.
The role-playing figures were digital and only visible to one wearing a head-mounted unit and backpack. The “smoke” was actually water vapor from a previous demonstration but nonetheless had managed to set off the fire alarm.
As members of the military and the media took turns acting out the same scene, up to the bombing at the end, they saw live video of the lobby around them, filmed by a helmet-mounted camera and projected onto screens on the back of a pair of opaque glasses. The digital characters were superimposed on the image.
This much is fairly simple. The challenge, Ray Pursel, modeling and simulation analyst with the Warfighting Lab, explained to the group, is making the avatars appear to stay in one place when the user turns his or her head and grow proportionally larger as the user approaches. Even trickier is what Pursel calls “occlusion reasoning”: the avatars have to block from view what is behind them and appear to be blocked — or partly blocked — by whatever is in front of them.
A demonstration of the technology was given at the school two years ago, before the technology to include the avatars or operate the system in darkness or heavy smoke had been developed. While these features have been added, the processor unit carried on the user’s back has also shrunk from 16 to eight pounds.
More work needs to be done before the system is ready for use in training, but Pursel said the developers wanted to keep Marine Corps leaders up to speed on its progress. “We’re showing them a concrete demonstration,” he said. “How folks use it in their domains will be up to them.”
“It’s the way of the future for training, no doubt,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Murray, who recently took command of Marine Corps Training and Education Command and was on hand for the demonstration. He has been an advocate for the technology for several years.
With reductions in forces and budgets in effect, and more forthcoming, Murray said the technology is a way “to much more effectively and efficiently get the training we need done.”
The idea is that live training is expensive, requiring a range, chow, manpower, vehicles, ammunition and other support. The augmented reality system would eliminate many of those expenses. A fighter jet could conduct an overhead bombing at virtually no cost.
“With augmented reality, we can do [live training] right there at the home station, or we can do it while they’re deployed,” said Rakesh Kumar, senior technical director of vision and robotics at SRI Sarnoff.
Programmers use a light detection and ranging unit, commonly known as LIDAR, on a personal transportation device to map out a three-dimensional model of the training area, and then the site can be used indefinitely. The digital model of the school that was created over the course of about two days before the 2010 demonstration was used again on Thursday.
Murray said the system also fits with a model of training that repeatedly puts Marines in an environment similar to combat zones like those in Afghanistan “to get them used to the environment and have them deal with possible things that could happen to them in that environment.”
This way, he said, much of their response becomes automatic.
As Purcel put it, “Instead of doing it until you get it right, maybe you can do it until you can’t get it wrong.”
Kumar said future plans for the system include decreasing its weight, adding cameras to weapons to determine shooting accuracy and giving avatars the ability to have different reactions, depending on how the user interacts with them. Also, the system now can be used by four trainees simultaneously, and developers are working to increase the capacity to a full squad of 13.
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