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Advancing on the Virtual Frontier

August 17, 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 

Steven Aguiar’s Second Life avatar stands on the causeway of a virtual submarine. Aguiar is the project lead of Second Life Strategic Initiatives at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Newport, Rhode Island.

Commercial modeling and simulation worlds offer immersive experience for collaborative training and prototyping.

Reaching beyond the traditional domains of sea, land, air, space and cyberspace, the U.S. military now is exploring its newest realm: the virtual world. The services are creeping cautiously into the latest frontier of simulated worlds with islands and avatars. This is not a simple maneuver. It is one filled with hurdles and pitfalls, but it is a domain that the U.S. Defense Department understands it can ignore no longer.

Each service has entered virtual worlds to differing degrees. For example, Division Newport of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), Newport, Rhode Island, began its journey early in 2008. Steven Aguiar, project lead, Second Life Strategic Initiatives, NUWC, was tasked with taking a hard look at virtual gaming and Web 2.0 Internet technologies as they apply to the undersea warfare mission areas.

More than 300 virtual worlds are reportedly in some development stage, so Aguiar’s first step was to evaluate an assortment. However, under closer scrutiny, he quickly determined that only a few would meet NUWC’s requirements, so approximately a dozen were brought into NUWC’s laboratory and examined.

The research resulted in a 13-page white paper that described how other government agencies are working in virtual space. Although Division Newport established the first official military presence in Second Life in November 2008, it continues to examine another virtual world called Qwaq Forums. “Because of the relative immaturity of these technologies, we’re finding that there’s not one to meet all of the requirements, so we still have to look at various technologies,” Aguiar says.

The past year of virtual space exploration has focused on experimentation and applications to real submarine problems to determine if the technology is sufficiently mature for the Navy program level. Beginning this year, Aguiar explains, the focus will be on adoption by the work force so that every member of Division Newport can access virtual worlds and use them for innovation, collaboration, conferencing and a number of other future capabilities. One goal is to provide a collaborative workspace so that personnel can interact on a technical level. This only would involve working with unclassified information, he emphasizes.

Division Newport has separate modeling and simulation initiatives that are focused and extensive, he says. Virtual worlds are providing an immersive, collaborative interface for a number of activities. “Instead of having eight different models running that are different aspects of a larger problem, we will be able to connect to those models via interfaces and simply experience the output or the state of those models from within a virtual space. This could also be done collaboratively. Instead of just one person looking at the output of one model, a team of folks remotely log in from anywhere that your network allows and can be looking at the virtual visualization of the modeling outputs, in tactical context, too,” Aguiar relates.

Second Life, developed by Linden Lab, San Francisco, supports modeling and simulation in two primary ways, he explains. First, behavior can be embedded into every object using Linden Lab’s scripting language. The language is similar to Java, so users can create an underwater vehicle that will behave in a simulation as a real-world vehicle behaves under water.

The fundamental goal for the coming months at Division Newport is adoption of the concept of collaborating in an immersive virtual world, he explains. In his view, adoption comprises four components: access, training, use cases and quality of experience. Access involves the ability to enable personnel to open virtual world applications at their desktop. According to Aguiar, all personnel at Division Newport are using the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), which appears to provide enough quality for users. However, the Second Life application must be accredited to run on NMCI, an issue that NUWC currently is working on with Linden Lab.

The second component, training, poses a challenge that all of the services are facing as new technologies are introduced into the force: the mixed ages of the work force. For example, Division Newport sponsored a Lean Six Sigma event that was attended primarily by people over the age of 40. Virtual world technology was employed, the training approach was traditional, and attendees were able to “get through the event,” Aguiar shares.

However, when high school students were invited to come to NUWC to explore Second Life as part of a public outreach program the result was much different. “Literally within seconds, the high school students were chatting with each other and building content without any training, and they had never been in Second Life before. So the challenge is how do you gear training mechanisms for a work force that is as diverse as that?” Aguiar asks.

The third element of adoption involves use cases. “You can’t just unleash them [the work force] and say, ‘OK, use it. Do good things.’ You need to provide them with use cases that work—be it mandatory training or design applications—and let them get in that world and [get] comfortable. Then and only then will they start being innovative and start taking the world and the capability to the next level,” he explains.

And the fourth adoption issue is similar to the first in that it involves the quality of users’ experience. If the work force has computers that are more than three years old, it is likely that software such as that required by Second Life will cause them to crash, leaving a user frustrated. However, if fairly good hardware, good graphics and improved interface devices are available, the quality of the experience will be enhanced, increasing the feeling of immersion. “Unlike a regular model or other Internet technologies, you have a representation [in the virtual world]. Your mind is tricked into believing that you are in that space, not in your office looking at a screen,” Aguiar notes.

This immersion sometimes can take users by surprise. Aguiar shares one experience that he had in Second Life early during the researching stage. He was giving a high-profile demonstration to his technical director and attempting to navigate his avatar. At that time, he was still clumsy with the technology and, as his avatar was headed for a sharp piece of metal, he tried to duck his avatar to avoid the object; he ducked in real life as well. “He caught me on it,” Aguiar admits laughing.

The second way in which Second Life supports modeling and simulation is a new focus area for NUWC. The goal is to take external models and interfaces down into the virtual space. As a result, the same virtual object could be completely controlled by an external model that would be accredited and controlled externally.

In terms of adoption throughout the U.S. Navy, Aguiar reveals that he has received a lot of positive interest from various levels of the service. The interest is across many applications—from rapid prototyping and collaborative design to training and education to public outreach and visualization of human system integration, he shares.

It is extremely difficult to speculate where virtual world technology and the military’s use of it will be even as soon as three years from now, Aguiar notes. Analysis by the Gartner Group in 2008 estimated that virtual worlds are evolving five times faster than the evolution of the Internet.

“If you look at analysis by organizations like the Gartner Group, they report that these virtual worlds, in general, are at the maturity level of the Internet in 1993. That means that from business perspective, from a use case perspective and from a capability perspective, there is a lot of potential. It can do enough to create some strong demonstrations and some specific applications, but it really is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact these products are going to make. And the statistics again say that by 2012, 80 percent of all Internet users may have a virtual world representation—an avatar,” he shares.

Second Life is not the only virtual world that has shown tremendous growth. For example, when Aguiar’s team was conducting its research about the technology, Qwaq Forums was only four months old. As a result of the low level of maturity at that time, the team was unsure about its value. However, one year later Qwaq had developed to a level that it could provide some powerful tools that Aguiar says will be the cornerstone of experimentation. This rapid development is due, at least in part, to the competitive environment that now exists among virtual world creators, he adds.

Despite this reluctance to try to foretell the military’s use of virtual worlds such as Second Life, Aguiar is willing to share his educated guess about how virtual worlds will be used not only in the military but also by industry and academia. “I think first and foremost the biggest fundamental change you are going to see is them [virtual worlds] moving out of the home, where they are primarily entertainment, and really moving full force into the workplace. Just like the Internet moved into the workplace, the same will happen to virtual worlds, but they won’t be necessarily separate entities from the Internet. They’re going to be an immersive interface to a larger network,” he maintains.

Aguiar also foresees the budding virtual world merging with existing Web 2.0 capabilities, Internet capabilities and mobile media. The Internet will become less a place where people go into and more of an experience integrated into everyday living. This will include not only putting data in—whether that is simple information or models—but also taking it out. “A lot of this is still new and awkward, and that’s the maturity factor. It will become seamless and trivial in the upcoming years. But I really think there’s no limit. I’ve yet to look at an application that I don’t see potential somewhere along the line. ... To me, this is a leap forward in information, information management and communication technologies that is going to be extremely powerful,” he states.

 

Among the skills that could be taught in Second Life is targeting. Trainees would be able to log in to the site from wherever they are physically located, saving both time and money.

One example of this adoption is work Aguiar is performing under a different technical area at NUWC; he developed a concept to view command and control differently. Using Second Life’s base product, he built a small demonstration. “I brought it to my boss, who then quickly brought it to the technical director of NUWC, who then presented it at an organization event. This presentation took 2 1/2 hours to construct in Second Life, yet it was so powerful and contextual—meaning in a tactical context—that it was worthy of a presentation to a technical audience,” he shares.

Collaboration in modeling and simulation as well as other areas is one of the largest benefits the virtual world offers the staff at NUWC, Aguiar adds. When he looks at the center, he sees 2,500 experts in different technical areas to whom he can provide a leap-ahead, innovative tool so that they can express their expertise in a variety of areas using something other than PowerPoint. “To me, that’s the real potential I’m after,” he says.

At this point, members of Aguiar’s team and avatars have been conducting several experiments. The team has not yet set up a formal training program to use Second Life, but it is working with various program sponsors to see how they would like to pursue it. “I think we are underestimating the power of that different type of approach to learning. Young people learn by pressing the buttons, talking to other people, figuring out how to use it by pushing the dynamics and then they use the product,” he offers.

Despite all of the attributes, working in the virtual world is not without challenges, and security is among the leading hurdles that must be overcome. Aguiar allows that this is a rapidly evolving technology, and even Web 2.0 capabilities are difficult to use in military environments. “We are very, very actively pursuing the security ramifications of all this technology, and we’re working that up,” he states.

WEB RESOURCES
Naval UnderseaWarfareCenter: www.nuwc.navy.mil
Linden Lab: http://lindenlab.com
Qwaq Incorporated: www.qwaq.com

 

Venturing into the virtual world, Capt. Matt Furman, USAF (Ret.), developer and Second Life project lead, Northrop Grumman Information Systems sector, created a U.S. Navy Combat Information Center where sailors could be trained on their own tasks as well as those of their shipmates.

Industry Embraces Latest Modeling Tools

The military services are receiving some help as they venture into the virtual world. Companies such as IBM, Intel and Northrop Grumman have been exploring the vast opportunities the virtual space offers as well as how they can enhance the experience of it for all users. The most recent developments include creating the ability for individual avatars to move from one virtual platform to another—an achievement that would broaden the utility of both existing and future multiple virtual realms.

As with the U.S. Navy, Northrop Grumman Corporation began its first steps into virtual worlds several years ago by conducting research. The company’s journey began in 2005 by examining and assessing virtual applications from an information operations perspective. The task fell upon Capt. Matt Furman, USAF (Ret.), developer and Second Life project lead, Northrop Grumman Information Systems sector, Reston, Virginia, and it is a job that he has fallen in love with. “I tap dance to work every day,” he quips.

Capt. Furman’s first step was to explore four active virtual worlds. Specifically, he was interested in the ease of access, fees and the learning curve. “When we did the analysis, hands down Second Life was the one to choose because it is so simple,” he explains.

The next step was to convince members of his company to see Second Life not as a game but as a valuable tool. Instead of taking his presentations up the corporate chain of command, Capt. Furman decided to put together four demonstrations and take them directly to Wes Bush, president and chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman. To make the greatest impression, the captain coordinated with seven different offices located around the world that represented each of the corporate sectors.

The first demonstration was the next-generation high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV). Northrop Grumman and Oshkosh Corporation are working on a joint project proposal to build the next-generation HMMWV called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). For the Second Life demonstration to Bush, Capt. Furman and his team built a virtual JLTV based on a single photograph, then made it interact with a test database.

The benefit in this instance became obvious very quickly, he says. In the real world, there is only one prototype of the JLTV, so all of the teams involved in the project must work on a single vehicle. “In virtual space, you can make as many copies as you doggone well please, and the next best thing is that you can tie it into a database based on whatever component you are working on,” he explains.

According to Capt. Furman, “The JLTV development team went absolutely bonkers.” However, at the same time, the marketing department was not as keen on the idea of creating a virtual JLTV that anyone could access. This is an example of how different sectors from the same company can view the possibilities that the virtual world generates, he notes.

Because Northrop Grumman is heavily involved in the defense sector, the second demonstration involved a combat information center (CIC). These centers are the heart of military operations on Navy ships, but building one in Second Life posed a particular problem: security. Obtaining information and a photograph of an operational CIC would be nearly impossible because of the security risks. To address this issue, the Northrop Grumman team found a released, unclassified, publicly accessible schematic of the CIC from the USS Ticonderoga, a ship that no longer is in service.

But the team did more than just create the CIC as a stand alone virtual space. Instead, Capt. Furman built a virtual ship that included stairways, bulkheads, corridors and side rooms. The goal was to ensure that visitors to the CIC could feel the entire experience of walking through the ship to arrive at the center rather than simply teleporting there.

By creating a lifelike CIC, the captain was able to demonstrate how the virtual space can be used to train sailors not only on their own tasks but also on how their work relates to other CIC staff members. “You may be one little cog in the machine, but how does the machine really work? That’s what we were able to propose in that demonstration, and boy was that a hit,” he relates.

The third demonstration involved a Theater Operations Center (TOC) in which joint force commanders operate while deployed. The problem in the real world is that as commanders are rotated in and out of a theater of operations, the TOC must be reconfigured to meet the new commander’s needs and desires. This process takes approximately two weeks and begins with an advance team building a temporary shelter in which the commander’s staff works until the permanent configuration is complete.

To address this problem, the Northrop Grumman team decided to build a generic TOC in Second Life that includes assets such as tables, chairs, computers and workstations. Joint force commanders can come into the space and configure it the way they desire. At that point, the commanders can invite the appropriate personnel to view the configuration in Second Life, and the work on the TOC can begin in the physical world. “So we took a two-week process and turned it into a 72-hour process, which of course all filters down to how much money we saved,” Capt. Furman shares.

The final demonstration that the captain’s team created for Bush involved the Cutlass Bomb Disposal Robot that Northrop Grumman builds. The goal was to show how Second Life could be used to complement this prototype project by facilitating training. In the real world, training personnel on this equipment can be costly; however, in the virtual world—one through which trainees can maneuver the real-life vehicle—traveling or shipping costs no longer apply. The team created a prototype of a new control module using Second Life, and then took this one step further, allowing trainees to maneuver the Cutlass using virtual tools. “This is taking simulation to the extreme,” he explains.

After seeing these four demonstrations, Bush said, “Make it happen.” Capt. Furman admits that in some ways this has been easier said than done, because the virtual world poses some challenges. It is not just about creating new capabilities, but also about creating the facilities, policies, procedures and equipment to make Northrop Grumman’s work in Second Life possible.

For example, when a Second Life avatar is created, it is more than simply a model of a human being. “Imagine that you are in a project simulation, you create an object and there is a mandate that everything that you create is part of that project. Now you put that in your inventory and then you fly over to a simulation that’s on the public grid. Can you take that object out of your inventory? Will it even be there? Who determines what’s publicly accessible and what is not? Think of all the different things that would then be a concern when it comes to objects, scripts, pictures, textures, you name it, and how you don’t want anything to get outside of your control. And then there are access control lists. How do you verify?” the captain points out.

One of the latest projects that Northrop Grumman, as well as IBM and Intel Corporation, has taken on involves improving and increasing business relationships with Second Life developer Linden Lab. Known as the Second Life Region Provider Program, it enables these companies to customize a completely separate and encapsulated version of Second Life for a customer. If it involves computers, Linden Lab would refer a client to IBM; for hardware, the referral would go to Intel; and for the U.S. Defense Department, Northrop Grumman will be the go-to expert. This distinct version of Second Life does not touch the main grid; rather, it is like logging in from server to server. “You would leave your continent, and you would then go into this Second Life main grid and your avatar would move from one to the other. One [world] is under your control, and the other is not,” Capt. Furman explains.

 

 

A model of an Apache helicopter created by a Second Life member includes a 10-page instruction manual on how to fly it.

Coalition Island Bridges Gaps Between Services

One of the latest additions to the virtual world is CoalitionIsland. It has the potential to create jointness to the nth degree, according to the military and industry alike. The island, which opened in April, is actually a hub with spokes to islands owned by each of the four services. It enables Second Life visitors to teleport to a single point, or hub, and then walk virtually from one island to another.

Work on the island began in February, and representatives from the services and Linden Lab continue to develop it. One anecdote demonstrates how CoalitionIsland can be the virtual bridge between the services that leads to improved jointness. The day after the hub island officially opened, avatars from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force were on their respective islands speaking to each other across the water. The discussion started with ideas about what type of bridge to build—virtually—to connect their islands. After this topic was resolved, members of the two services began discussing how they could support each other during training and warfighting simulations.

Currently, a Government Using Second Life list is being developed. This directory includes most of the military organization members of CoalitionIsland and will be used as a vehicle to share information about what is taking place on the island. As of June, a CoalitionIsland group had not been created; however, this could be an addition in the future.

According to Scott Sechser, government liaison and account manager, Linden Lab, the military organizations involved in CoalitionIsland have been working in Second Life for about the last two years. During that time, new groups have joined, and the early adopters have become more heavily involved.

Sechser says many of the military groups that first decided to give Second Life a try did so as a modeling and simulation platform. Primarily, the talk has been about employing it for training exercises and simulations, particularly in prototyping. But how a military service chooses to use Second Life depends on the group, he explains.

Recognizing the potential of using the virtual world in a variety of manners, the services have established presences in Second Life to differing degrees. Among the organizations that currently are involved are the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army. From his work with the Air Force, he believes the service would like to make Second Life a place where cadets can train on a regular basis. Beginning from the day they join the Air Force, airmen would create an avatar that would follow them throughout their careers, he relates.

Using a virtual platform for training offers several benefits. For example, troops in different areas of the world can meet in a place like Second Life rather than travel to a single site. This saves both time and money, Sechser points out. Even for communications that have become somewhat commonplace, such as conference calls, the virtual world can make the experience more personal and memorable, he adds. “Imagine groups in the military, or for that matter every agency of the government, spread throughout the country using Second Life to conduct meetings,” he says.

Virtual platforms also offer the military benefits in the area of prototyping products. Sechser has heard of instances when military developers still build models of potential products using wood and metal, for example. In Second Life, they can create a model, and all of the stakeholders, no matter where they are located, can come in, review the model and add their own ideas.

This approach to modeling and simulation is not necessarily restricted to prototypes. Sechser notes that an Apache helicopter already exists in Second Life. “It’s phenomenal, and I don’t use the word ‘phenomenal’ very often,” he states. A 10-page instruction manual about how to fly the Apache accompanies the model. “I want to say that anyone who’s gone ahead and read all the instructions and done everything to fly this thing in Second Life is going to be way ahead of anyone who has not done the same thing,” he adds.

The ability to prototype products in the virtual world also saves time and money. The tools within Second Life, for example, are available to all users. As a result, a prototype that may take six months and cost millions of dollars to create in the real world can be turned around in a matter of hours or days at a fraction of the cost, Sechser notes.

“I want people to go visit CoalitionIsland. I want people to know that it is there. In the future, we will probably make some changes to it, maybe change some items around. I would like to get the Marines and the Coast Guard more involved as part of CoalitionIsland. That’s one of my goals. I feel they are not represented in Second Life, and they should be,” he states.