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Virtual Humans-New Kids on the Block

June 24, 2011
By Beverly Schaeffer

Not only is virtual reality teaching warfighters to train in battle tactics-one of the first apps of gaming that sprang from old Atari systems and their ilk-it's now providing resources to soldiers to help them throughout their entire service careers. It's the stuff of Hollywood, and that's a reality, because the same technologies used to create special effects in movies also are being used to convey scenarios encountered by warfighters in various situations. In his article, "Virtual Humans Keep It Real," in this issue of SIGNAL Magazine, George I. Seffers highlights the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), founded in 1999 using Army funds. The ICT's goal is to optimize progress in virtual reality technologies developed by the movie and video gaming industries with advances being made in military modeling and simulation (M&S). The Army benefits from more realistic training, but it goes much further. With advances in M&S, the "virtual human" is now an important tool, surpassing the avatar by functioning autonomously via artificial intelligence with programmed verbal, physical and emotional responses. John Hart, Army ICT program manager, says of these mathematically programmed entities:

Virtual humans are artificial intelligence-controlled humans. They are meant to act and respond as a real human so that you can have a real conversation with them. These virtual humans have emotions.

Emotions play a large role because they impact communication and decision-making. Training scenarios focus on leadership and interpersonal skills, which must be honed to deal with multicultural and other challenges faced in theater. Realistic virtual interaction provides a more believable scenario, which leads to multiple training benefits. Virtual human interaction also plays a big role in two therapy projects-Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan-which help soldiers address post-traumatic stress disorder by using exposure therapy, guided by a trained therapist, to confront traumatic memories through a retelling of the experience. The system is being used across the nation, in medical centers such as Walter Reed. The virtual humans certainly are characters, including "Sergeant Star," developed for recruiting. A life-sized character projected onto a semi-transparent screen, Sergeant Star converses with his human counterparts. His chest moves with each breath; his eyebrows arch when appropriate; he shrugs; and he jokes about his being a moving, thinking, talking and incredibly handsome soldier. He answers questions on Army careers, training and education and handles queries about the technology behind his development and use. What it boils down to, Hart emphasizes, is that the major component of virtual reality is the art of storytelling-because soldiers must be immersed in the story of the training simulation, just as they would immerse themselves in a book, movie or video game. This is how warfighters can now become acclimated to the military culture, the battlefield, and eventually how they can readjust to civilian life upon completion of service.

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