Virtual Worlds Form Defense Training Frontier

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2011 — Five years from now, if Frank C. DiGio­van­ni has his way, warfight­ers from every ser­vice will learn aspects of their trade on a world in cyber­space.
The Defense Depart­ment will save mon­ey, time, and ulti­mate­ly, lives, he said, and it’s his job to make that vir­tu­al world a real­i­ty.

The center for U.S. Military Islands, called MiLands, on Coalition Island in Second Life
The cen­ter for U.S. Mil­i­tary Islands, called MiLands, on Coali­tion Island in Sec­ond Life. Coali­tion Island is a hub for U.S. armed forces activ­i­ty on the vir­tu­al world.
Cour­tesy of Pam Brovi­ak
Click to enlarge

DiGio­van­ni is direc­tor of train­ing readi­ness and strat­e­gy in the office of the deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for readi­ness. He’s also a retired Air Force colonel and a senior avi­a­tor.

“I’d love to see it hap­pen in the next 18 months to two years,” DiGio­van­ni said in an inter­view with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice. “Real­is­ti­cal­ly, a full-up world is prob­a­bly five years away.”

Over the next five years, the Defense Depart­ment will build that world in cyber­space, where the men and women of the armed forces will take anoth­er step for­ward in the tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy that began with the pub­lic Inter­net and DOD web­sites.

A vir­tu­al world is a com­put­er-based sim­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ment that’s avail­able 24 hours a day. Users cre­ate dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves, called “avatars,” that build out the world, cre­at­ing con­tent and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er.

Sec­ond Life is one of many vir­tu­al worlds that exist in cyber­space. It opened in 2003, cre­at­ed by Lin­den Lab, a San Fran­cis­co-based com­pa­ny found­ed in 1999 by Philip Rosedale to cre­ate a new form of shared expe­ri­ence.

Sec­ond Life res­i­dents — 20 mil­lion and ris­ing, from hun­dreds of coun­tries — build and own the world’s dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture. This includes homes, vehi­cles, cam­pus­es of real-life uni­ver­si­ties, muse­ums, night­clubs, stores, libraries, land­scapes, games, islands, com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions and mil­i­tary bases.

A hand­ful of U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies have facil­i­ties of vary­ing com­plex­i­ty and inter­ac­tion in Sec­ond Life.

These include NASA, the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion, the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health and its Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and more every day.

The Defense Department’s vir­tu­al world may be five years away, but the Army, Navy and Air Force all have pub­lic and pri­vate facil­i­ties in Sec­ond Life, and in oth­er vir­tu­al worlds, includ­ing Tele­place and Open­Sim­u­la­tor.

In Sec­ond Life, U.S. mil­i­tary activ­i­ties take place on a grow­ing col­lec­tion of islands called “Mil­i­tary Islands.”

MiLands was estab­lished in 2008 by Doug Maxwell, for­mer­ly of the Naval Under­sea War­fare Cen­ter and now sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy man­ag­er for vir­tu­al world and strate­gic appli­ca­tions at the Army Sim­u­la­tion and Train­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter in Orlan­do, Fla. MiLands includes the Air Force Air Edu­ca­tion and Train­ing Com­mand and Air Uni­ver­si­ty, the Naval Under­sea War­fare Com­mand and oth­er Navy projects, a Marine Corps island, sev­er­al Army groups and Coali­tion Island, a mil­i­tary hub.

Each group uses Sec­ond Life for activ­i­ties that include train­ing, edu­ca­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tion and research.

DiGio­van­ni prais­es these efforts as “pio­neer­ing work done by the ser­vices and some peo­ple with great vision who real­ly saw the poten­tial” of vir­tu­al worlds for mil­i­tary uses. “But we felt it was ad hoc,” DiGio­van­ni said.

For the DOD vir­tu­al world experts are work­ing on “a gov­er­nance mod­el that makes sense” in which every­one in the world can par­tic­i­pate, DiGio­van­ni said, much like the Con­sti­tu­tion allows Amer­i­can cit­i­zens to par­tic­i­pate in their gov­ern­ment.

“A gov­er­nance mod­el allows you to take all the efforts that are going on and syn­chro­nize them, inte­grate them, so you have a com­pre­hen­sive whole, and not four sep­a­rate efforts,” he added.

“I don’t want four sep­a­rate worlds, I want one world … to be able to lever­age all that con­tent build­ing that’s being done by every­one out there,” the direc­tor said.

DiGio­van­ni began think­ing about emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies when he was asked to devel­op a train­ing envi­ron­ment that was avail­able glob­al­ly, 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week. Some of the inspi­ra­tion for vir­tu­al world mil­i­tary train­ing came from mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er online games, such as Halo and Call of Duty, he said.

“When you look at the abil­i­ty to go to an online game, pick a team ad hoc, decide on the tac­tic and then start the game,” DiGio­van­ni added, “that’s when you think, if we can do that in the com­mer­cial world, the Defense Depart­ment needs a sim­i­lar capa­bil­i­ty.”

A “per­fect storm” of resource con­straints, glob­al repo­si­tion­ing of troops com­ing home from the Mid­dle East, and com­pet­ing demands for land, air and mar­itime train­ing capa­bil­i­ty makes it crit­i­cal to devel­op a vir­tu­al train­ing capa­bil­i­ty, he said.

Such an envi­ron­ment, DiGio­van­ni said, must be “aug­ment­ed with some type of phys­i­cal train­ing to make sure that what you’re learn­ing in the vir­tu­al world can be export­ed to the real world.”

Vir­tu­al train­ing can be very effec­tive, he added, and can help peo­ple become much more pro­fi­cient in the lim­it­ed amount of time and space avail­able with live resources. The Strate­gic Plan for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Train­ing for the Depart­ment of Defense, pub­lished in 2010, DiGio­van­ni said, dis­cuss­es “lever­ag­ing emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies to enhance our train­ing capa­bil­i­ties.”

The plan was ful­ly vet­ted across all four ser­vices and signed by Deputy Defense Sec­re­tary William J. Lynn III, he added. Essen­tial fea­tures of a tech­nol­o­gy-based train­ing envi­ron­ment, the report says, include syn­chro­niz­ing “live and vir­tu­al train­ing oper­a­tions in near-real time to enable real­is­tic sim­u­la­tion of sen­sors, repli­ca­tion of visu­al cues and plat­form inter­ac­tions [among] live, vir­tu­al and con­struc­tive par­tic­i­pants.”

DiGio­van­ni and his staff meet with indus­try experts and con­sult reg­u­lar­ly with the tech­no­log­i­cal pio­neers who are build­ing vir­tu­al capac­i­ty today for the mil­i­tary ser­vices. Carl Rosen­grant, senior tech­ni­cal advis­er for train­ing readi­ness and strat­e­gy, said his office would soon receive the results of a study by indus­try experts to help DOD define the frame­work and tools need­ed to devel­op the Defense Depart­ment online world.

When the report is writ­ten and vet­ted with tech­nol­o­gy experts in the mil­i­tary ser­vices, DiGio­van­ni said, “We think we’ll be able to put the con­struct togeth­er that would allow us to build a world.”

Amer­i­can cul­ture is well pos­tured to lead a rev­o­lu­tion in the use of the vir­tu­al train­ing envi­ron­ment, DiGio­van­ni said.

“I chal­lenge every­one to put their pio­neer­ing spir­it on,” he said, “think about where tech­nol­o­gy can take us, and then let’s go there togeth­er.”

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

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