Immersive Technology Fuels Infantry Simulators

WASHINGTON — Rock­et-pro­pelled grenades explode, vil­lagers scream in Ara­bic, squad mem­bers move togeth­er through the rough streets past ani­mal pens and bazaar stalls, and the hot air car­ries local sounds and smells.
It’s not Afghanistan’s Hel­mand province. It’s a 130,000-square-foot build­ing on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendle­ton in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Future Immersive Training Environment at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Marines from 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 8th Marine Reg­i­ment, walk through a sce­nario dur­ing an ear­ly demon­stra­tion of the Future Immer­sive Train­ing Envi­ron­ment at Camp Leje­une, N.C., in March 2010. FITE is part of a broad cam­paign to enhance ground-based sim­u­la­tion through real­is­tic, immer­sive train­ing.
U.S. Army pho­to by Sgt. Josh LeCap­pelain
Click to enlarge

There, at the Infantry Immer­sion Train­er, a Defense Depart­ment pro­gram com­bines infra­struc­ture, actors, and three-dimen­sion­al immer­sive tech­nolo­gies that repli­cate the sights, sit­u­a­tions and smells of war in the Mid­dle East to help Marines and sol­diers make bet­ter, faster deci­sions on the ground. 

M.K. Trib­bie is over­sight exec­u­tive for the Future Immer­sive Train­ing Envi­ron­ment, called FITE. The envi­ron­ment merges ele­ments of vir­tu­al real­i­ty, com­put­er gam­ing and vir­tu­al worlds into an inter­ac­tive train­ing tool that is being test­ed at sev­er­al Marine Corps and Army bases around the coun­try, Trib­bie said. 

The idea to build what essen­tial­ly is a train­ing sim­u­la­tor for ground troops, he added, came from Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mat­tis in 2008, when he led U.S. Joint Forces Command. 

Mat­tis had been think­ing for sev­er­al years about the fact that ground forces at the infantry and squad lev­els had no access to the kind of immer­sive train­ing and sim­u­la­tors rou­tine­ly used by avi­a­tors, sub­ma­rine and ship pilots, and even truck dri­vers, Trib­bie said. 

Mat­tis thought, he added, “that if we could put togeth­er that sort of capa­bil­i­ty, we could ele­vate the qual­i­ty of train­ing avail­able to these ground forces so they could make bet­ter, faster, more eth­i­cal deci­sions in the com­plex and chaot­ic envi­ron­ment they fight in.” 

FITE was approved in 2008 to give indi­vid­u­als, lead­ers and small units a train­ing capa­bil­i­ty that “makes their first con­tact with the ene­my no worse than the last sim­u­la­tion they expe­ri­enced,” as the program’s tagline goes. 

“Our Army infantry, our spe­cial oper­a­tions forces, our Marine infantry con­tin­ue to learn too many of their grim skills in the unfor­giv­ing, chaot­ic and eth­i­cal­ly bruis­ing envi­ron­ment of their first close com­bat, where inti­mate killing is the norm,” Mat­tis, who now com­mands the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, says in a video that pro­motes the program. 

U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand was inter­est­ed in the tech­nol­o­gy, as were the Navy and Air Force. A major fun­der of the project was the Joint Impro­vised Explo­sive Device Defeat Orga­ni­za­tion, Trib­bie said. 

Begin­ning in ear­ly fis­cal year 2009, FITE was built in two parts and demon­strat­ed by 10- to 13-man squads. 

The first part used a hel­met-mount­ed vir­tu­al-real­i­ty dis­play sys­tem, a com­put­er that squad mem­bers wore on their backs, a tac­tile feed­back device they wore on their thighs, and an oper­a­tional­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive weapon that looked and felt like the real thing, Trib­bie said. Wear­ing this equip­ment, the squad stood in a large room on a grid­ded floor. If they walked in place, they moved for­ward in the train­ing scenario. 

In the demon­stra­tion, they were briefed on a mis­sion that they were to car­ry out in the vir­tu­al environment. 

“They see a vir­tu­al dis­play right before their eyes,” Trib­bie said. “Wher­ev­er they look, they see each oth­er, they see the vir­tu­al play­ers for the mis­sion, they see the full envi­ron­ment you would see if you were in a real envi­ron­ment, but everything’s virtual.” 

The faces of each per­son in the squad were recre­at­ed dig­i­tal­ly, he added, so when they see each oth­er in the vir­tu­al sce­nar­ios they see the vir­tu­al faces of their squad mates. “In that man­ner, they were see­ing the vir­tu­al real­i­ty, hear­ing the vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment,” he said, “and to a degree we had devices that emit­ted rep­re­sen­ta­tive smells of the environment.” 

If one of the squad was hurt or shot while car­ry­ing out the mis­sion, the device on his thigh deliv­ered “a kind of mild elec­tron­ic jolt to sim­u­late that and help dri­ve home the real­ism of the sce­nario,” Trib­bie said. 

“They real­ly liked it,” he said of FITE Part 1, which was demon­strat­ed in March 2009 at Marine Corps Base Camp Leje­une in North Car­oli­na and at the Army’s Fort Ben­ning in Geor­gia. In the next step, the design­ers blend­ed real and vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments in exer­cis­es called “facil­i­ty-based mixed real­i­ty,” Trib­bie said. They con­duct­ed these exer­cis­es at Camp Pendle­ton with par­tic­i­pants and observers from the Army. 

There, a few years ear­li­er — rec­og­niz­ing the pow­er and val­ue of mixed-real­i­ty train­ing, Trib­bie said — the Marines built the Infantry Immer­sive Trainer. 

It’s like a movie set, Trib­bie added, with Pash­tun-speak­ing role play­ers, ani­ma­tron­ic char­ac­ters, inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al pro­jec­tions called avatars and sim­u­lat­ed bat­tle­field effects. 

Because the FITE tech­nolo­gies are very mature the ser­vices “are able to observe, assess and ana­lyze what was demon­strat­ed,” he said, before they spend a lot of mon­ey on such capabilities. 

Trib­bie said he expects fur­ther growth over the next few years. 

“You’ll start see­ing the ser­vices and even non-DOD enti­ties like [fed­er­al] agen­cies begin to lever­age more avail­able and matur­ing immer­sive capa­bil­i­ties and tech­nolo­gies,” he predicted. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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