USA — Navy Explores Engineering, Training in Virtual Worlds

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2011 — The Navy is explor­ing vir­tu­al worlds for appli­ca­tions in the air and under the sea, includ­ing the real-time design of future com­mand-and-con­trol spaces for sub­marines.
At the Naval Under­sea War­fare Center’s Divi­sion New­port in Rhode Island, Steven Aguiar is the vir­tu­al worlds tech­ni­cal pro­gram man­ag­er.

virtual Naval Undersea Warfare Center, part of Naval Sea Systems Command
A vis­i­tor approach­es the main entrance of the vir­tu­al Naval Under­sea War­fare Cen­ter, part of Naval Sea Sys­tems Com­mand, in the vir­tu­al world Sec­ond Life.
U.S. Navy pho­to
Click to enlarge

In late 2007, the Divi­sion New­port lead­er­ship set out to deter­mine whether “rapid­ly evolv­ing tech­nolo­gies like gam­ing engines, Web 2.0 and a new thing called vir­tu­al worlds could impact our under­sea war­fare domain,” Aguiar told Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice.

At the time, Aguiar designed advanced com­put­er sys­tems for sub­ma­rine attack cen­ters. “Even with that fair­ly focused domain knowl­edge,” he said, “I could appre­ci­ate that vir­tu­al worlds like Sec­ond Life had a lot of poten­tial for rapid pro­to­typ­ing of com­mand-and-con­trol spaces, train­ing of sys­tems or tac­tics and visu­al­iza­tion of data analy­sis.”

Near­ly four years lat­er, Aguiar said, his team is look­ing hard at Sec­ond Life, Tele­place, Real­World, Open Sim­u­la­tor and oth­er vir­tu­al worlds “to under­stand their strengths and weak­ness­es and lim­i­ta­tions as we apply them to mil­i­tary require­ments.”

This includes “bring­ing the vir­tu­al worlds into our lab­o­ra­to­ry, fir­ing them up and get­ting some hands-on expe­ri­ence,” he added. Divi­sion New­port sup­plies the tech­ni­cal foun­da­tion for con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing, devel­op­ing, field­ing, mod­ern­iz­ing and main­tain­ing Navy under­sea sys­tems. The work ranges from research to sup­port­ing fleet oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ties and espe­cial­ly applied research and sys­tem devel­op­ment. Vir­tu­al world capa­bil­i­ties lend them­selves to many of these tasks, he said.

Aguiar’s team describes vir­tu­al worlds as the com­ing togeth­er of gam­ing engines, Web 2.0 and clas­sic mod­el­ing and sim­u­la­tion. “The real-time dynam­ics of the envi­ron­ment is the pow­er of vir­tu­al worlds,” Aguiar said.

As avatars, he added, users can walk into any 3-D vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment and have the free­dom to inter­act with each oth­er and with the envi­ron­ment as if they were tru­ly col­lo­cat­ed in a phys­i­cal space.

“If you think of those as the core capa­bil­i­ties,” he said, “dif­fer­ent prob­lems we come across take advan­tage of some of those fea­tures.” Train­ing is one of the most effec­tive ways to use vir­tu­al worlds, Aguiar said.

“We can very eas­i­ly and quick­ly, some­times even in real time, cre­ate train­ing con­tent that shows, say for tac­ti­cal com­put­er dis­plays, how the data is gen­er­at­ed,” he said. In a vir­tu­al world, stu­dent avatars can actu­al­ly walk into life-sized tac­ti­cal plots rather than star­ing at an image on a com­put­er mon­i­tor. “It’s almost like [being able to] climb a dou­ble-helix DNA mol­e­cule,” he said. “You can turn what would have been a pas­sive class­room ses­sion where somebody’s lec­tur­ing on how that plot is gen­er­at­ed into an inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence where the user is lit­er­al­ly walk­ing into the data.”

Such a capa­bil­i­ty, which research has shown to great­ly improve a student’s absorp­tion of fun­da­men­tal con­cepts, Aguiar said, makes vir­tu­al worlds “stand out from all of the oth­er ways you can give out train­ing.” And in a vir­tu­al world, lots of things can be done at once.

For the Naval Under­sea War­fare Cen­ter, these include visu­al­iza­tion, immer­sive learn­ing, con­fer­enc­ing, out­reach, joint forces col­lab­o­ra­tion, com­mand and con­trol, dis­trib­uted mod­el­ing and sim­u­la­tion, cur­ricu­lum enrich­ment, inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion and sce­nario sim­u­la­tion.

In a vir­tu­al train­ing envi­ron­ment, a remote instruc­tor can teach stu­dent avatars from all over the world in a sin­gle vir­tu­al class­room. When the stu­dents are fin­ished with that, Aguiar said, they can walk out the door and jump into a seri­ous game, say a sce­nario sim­u­la­tion event where they’re pilot­ing a sub­ma­rine and doing tac­ti­cal mis­sions. Then they can go into some kind of com­mand-and-con­trol exper­i­ment.

“One of the pow­ers of a vir­tu­al world is that it gets away from stovepiped train­ing con­cepts and allows the inte­gra­tion of [tra­di­tion­al] and vir­tu­al train­ing com­po­nents in a sin­gle envi­ron­ment,” he said.

Beyond train­ing, Aguiar said, “I know my Army and Air Force brethren are inter­est­ed in vir­tu­al worlds for what I would call sce­nario sim­u­la­tion — cre­at­ing a vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment that match­es a real-world envi­ron­ment so they can do some type of group sce­nario.”

At NUWC, he said, “we’re using it for col­lab­o­ra­tive engi­neer­ing.”

In this appli­ca­tion, Aguiar and his team are explor­ing the use of vir­tu­al worlds for three phas­es of com­mand-and-con­trol design. First, they work with the Office of Naval Research and direct­ly with the fleet to gen­er­ate a series of future attack cen­ter spaces in real time.

Through work­shops, fleet par­tic­i­pants and Office of Naval Research sub­ject-mat­ter experts meet in vir­tu­al-world work­shops from wher­ev­er they are in the coun­try, Aguiar said, “and in real time we build out these attack cen­ters.”

In a 45-minute ses­sion, he added, “as fast as the fleet could say, ‘I want this dis­play here and I want to move this func­tion there,’ we’re able to cap­ture and build out a full future attack-cen­ter con­cept.”

Next, NUWC uses mod­els gen­er­at­ed dur­ing the rapid pro­to­typ­ing of com­mand-and-con­trol spaces to visu­al­ize how peo­ple inter­act with the tac­ti­cal data. “Specif­i­cal­ly,” Aguiar explained, “we visu­al­ize how infor­ma­tion flows from per­son to per­son and per­son to con­sole through that space as the mis­sion evolves.” The infor­ma­tion tells design­ers how the space will oper­ate when it’s built.

In the third phase, which Aguiar’s team demon­strat­ed in August 2009, they took a Vir­ginia-class sub­ma­rine attack cen­ter mod­el and put it into a vir­tu­al world. “The crit­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy piece is that we were able to take the vir­tu­al dis­plays in the vir­tu­al attack cen­ter and con­nect them to the real tac­ti­cal sys­tems,” he said. “The fleet oper­a­tors, as they’re sit­ting down as avatars look­ing at tac­ti­cal dis­plays, have full remote con­trol of those tac­ti­cal sys­tems.” Aguiar calls this team-lev­el appli­ca­tion shar­ing.

“Not only could each oper­a­tor see their own screen, they could turn their heads and see their neighbor’s screen or talk to their neigh­bor,” he said. Or a com­mand­ing offi­cer or ana­lyst could stand behind a group of peo­ple and talk to them and see everybody’s screen while every­body is remote­ly dis­trib­uted on the net­work, he added.

“The real peo­ple can be any­where, sit­ting in front of a gener­ic con­sole,” Aguiar said. “But once they’re in that vir­tu­al attack cen­ter they have the crit­i­cal ele­ments they need to per­form as a team, prac­tic­ing or exper­i­ment­ing on a real mis­sion — human dynam­ics, the mod­el envi­ron­ment and con­nec­tion to live tac­ti­cal sys­tems.”

Although this was a small demon­stra­tion, Aguiar added, “in our demo, we wit­nessed equiv­a­lent per­for­mance whether they were work­ing in the vir­tu­al space or the phys­i­cal space.” Anoth­er ben­e­fit, he said, is the poten­tial cost sav­ings real­ized by doing rehearsal and plan­ning activ­i­ties in a vir­tu­al space before hold­ing a live con­cept-of-oper­a­tion exper­i­ment event.

Else­where in the Navy, the lead­er­ship at Naval Air Sys­tems Com­mand head­quar­ters in Patux­ent Riv­er, Md., is explor­ing the val­ue of vir­tu­al worlds. Karen Coop­er is the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor for Future Work­force Tech­nolo­gies and Strate­gies at the Naval Air War­fare Cen­ter Air­craft Divi­sion, and is spear­head­ing vir­tu­al world inves­ti­ga­tion. Coop­er said with­in the Navy, the Naval Sea Sys­tems Com­mand is the leader in vir­tu­al-world devel­op­ment efforts and the Naval Air War­fare Com­mand is the leader in val­i­da­tion and empir­i­cal­ly test­ing these worlds to cal­cu­late their real val­ue “beyond the bling and beyond the build.”

Navair, she said, is work­ing “to exam­ine whether vir­tu­al worlds real­ly [deliv­er] a return on invest­ment, increased per­for­mance, bet­ter under­stand­ing, short­ened time to learn, and rapid pro­to­typ­ing and acqui­si­tion stream­lin­ing.”

Navair is also part­ner­ing with Navsea’s Carde­rock Divi­sion, which is lead­ing an inno­va­tion pro­to­type that involves vir­tu­al worlds, Coop­er said. Navair’s role is to make sure that peo­ple actu­al­ly learn in vir­tu­al world sce­nar­ios and that the envi­ron­ment is engag­ing.

Work­ing on the pro­to­type is a team of spe­cial­ists from Navsea Carde­rock and Philadel­phia, from Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty in New Jer­sey, and Coop­er from Navair Patux­ent Riv­er in Mary­land.” For the six-month project, Coop­er said, the com­mands are work­ing togeth­er on a ship­board emer­gency-response train­ing sce­nario which is begin devel­oped in the vir­tu­al world Tele­place.

In the sce­nario, she said, a sailor as his avatar is work­ing at a vir­tu­al con­sole from which he con­trols engine-room equip­ment. The train­ing involves some­thing that goes wrong in the engine room and this shows up as alerts on the con­sole. The sailor must take cer­tain actions to respond to the emer­gency.

“As a train­ing sce­nario we can use vir­tu­al worlds to observe the sailor’s response, includ­ing response time and response pat­terns,” Coop­er said. The vir­tu­al sim­u­la­tion also can accom­mo­date a group of sailors to accom­mo­date team build­ing skills includ­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, coor­di­na­tion and lead­er­ship skills.

“We can actu­al­ly record the sce­nario and then play it back as an after-action review,” she added.

On a real ship or in a large, high-end mock-up sim­u­la­tor, she added, “we’d only be able to send one or two sailors through every two hours, and it would be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more cost­ly.”

“The pow­er­ful part, Coop­er con­tin­ued, “is because the sce­nario is avail­able in a vir­tu­al world, you can set up train­ing around the clock and the instruc­tors and learn­ers can be geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­persed.”

In this effort, Coop­er said, the com­mands are part­ner­ing with Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty in Glass­boro, N.J. Stu­dents are help­ing build the train­ing infra­struc­ture in the vir­tu­al world and receiv­ing cred­it at the uni­ver­si­ty for their work.

The Navy com­mands are also work­ing togeth­er to draft a vir­tu­al world roadmap for the Navy, Coop­er said. The roadmap is still in draft form, she said. But the hope is that even­tu­al­ly it will go before the com­mands and then to the chief of naval oper­a­tions.

Coop­er said the Navy also is con­tribut­ing to an Army-led effort called the Fed­er­al Vir­tu­al World Chal­lenge, an annu­al pub­lic com­pe­ti­tion for devel­op­ing the best uses of vir­tu­al worlds.

Navy eval­u­a­tors joined oth­ers from the Defense Depart­ment to choose recip­i­ents of chal­lenge awards. The 2010 theme was train­ing; this year it was arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Navair leads the eval­u­a­tion por­tion of the chal­lenge, she said.

“Part of the pur­pose behind the chal­lenge is to advance the state of vir­tu­al world tech­nol­o­gy spe­cif­ic to the theme of the year,” Coop­er explained, “but it’s also to cre­ate cross exper­tise and knowl­edge growth across the DOD.”

These are all exam­ples of joint DOD and Navy part­ner­ships along with acad­e­mia, she added, to grow and advance the state of the tech­nol­o­gy.

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

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