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Training in the Metaverse Never Looked So Realistic

Enhanced technology makes it easier for trainees to make war in a digital world.
A Stryker vehicle commander interacts in real time with a soldier avatar. Credit: U.S. Army

A Stryker vehicle commander interacts in real time with a soldier avatar. Credit: U.S. Army

Many people who bought stocks betting on a massive shift toward full virtuality have lost capital. But one metaverse is growing by leaps and bounds while exciting soldiers, military planners, politicians, law enforcement and businesspeople with its possibilities.

Anybody looking at synthetic training programs would recognize elements from game consoles, arcade games or flight simulators; the crucial difference is that participants are learning skills that would otherwise be too expensive or risky to acquire.

“Project Tripoli will provide the Marine Corps with a virtual environment that embeds with live training in order for Marines to gain experience with emerging systems and capabilities across all domains,” said Capt. Phillip Parker, spokesperson, Training and Education Command, U.S. Marine Corps.

As the Marines work on integrating weapons systems and teaching how to coordinate actions—for example, helicopter pilots and infantry receiving artillery support, all interacting in the same virtual environment—the sector has dozens of companies competing to capture an expected 4.67% yearly growth rate to 2026, according to Technavio, a market research company.

The same report posits that around one-third of the additional $6.1 billion market growth to 2026 will be added by the U.S., mainly in flight simulators, while other forms of synthetic training will also see significant growth.

The conflict metaverse is alive around the planet. Battles are also being played in Asia, where a company has been at it for decades.

“We are making modularized software,” said Angela Park, marketing lead at Naviworks of Korea.

“We provide a 3D-modeling tool scenario editor, training executor and after-action review, and also, hardware parts; we can provide virtual reality or mixed reality, augmented reality and extended reality, according to the customers’ needs,” Park told SIGNAL Media in an interview.

Naviworks claims to be Korea’s defense forces’ main simulations supplier, with tools for its army, navy and air force. Their training scenarios can support up to 300 soldiers, according to a release by the company.

While all forms of virtual training are cheaper than mobilizing costly equipment and consuming live ammunition, there are situations where even this form of instruction is still too expensive, especially for local administrations. Full suites can pile up million-dollar bills and go beyond tight budgets.

One company found an opportunity with a no-frills product that provides critical features. For less than $20,000, a virtual firing range can be acquired with scenarios prepared for continuous training designed for law enforcement personnel, who operate under similar pressures as soldiers but under different conditions.

Digimation is a company that developed DART, a cheaper technology particularly suitable for police departments. It claims to help over 300 law enforcement organizations across the country with DART simulators, and the company is still surprised by how its clients use this equipment, to the point that training is part of daily activities.

“[Police officers] come in 15 minutes before a shift and come in again 15 minutes before they leave and go home,” said David Avgikos, founder and president of Digimation.

“What’s unique about DART is it comes with software to allow you to make your own [training] courses, so you can define everything between people and props and flat targets. You can lay out scenarios and training courses,” Avgikos said.

If practice makes perfect, a lot of practice certainly sets trainees up for success.

“If they have a problem shooter, they just put them right on there,” said Avgikos. He explained how two quarter-hour daily sessions adds to days of training every year, improving officer performance, and analyzing behaviors in almost-real scenarios.

This ties in with yearly qualifications to remain in the job. Providing little to no training can set up hurdles to staying in the force. “Now, nobody’s missing that,” Avgikos claimed.

DART’s realism is in the situations it can present to officers making split-second life-and-death decisions. In law enforcement, the focus is human interactions and finding the best way to evaluate, decide and act.

The company recently said it has sold dozens of its suites to the U.S. Army.

In war, another key factor has been at the center of action since antiquity: terrain.

Detailed knowledge of where operations will take place is one more tactical advantage, and a company offering synthetic military training places its efforts in geographical realism.

“One of the key things is that we have this whole earth terrain, or a digital twin, so to speak, of planet Earth, and we’ve built that out in high fidelity 3D,” said Peter Morrison, chief commercial officer at Bohemia Interactive Simulations, or BISim. “We have regionally specific vegetation and rocks. We have roads all in the correct place. We have buildings all in the correct place,” Morrison said in an interview.

Together with these realistic scenarios, the company offers suites for multidomain military simulations.

These suppliers worked on two aspects to make their systems more effective. Firstly, artificial intelligence keeps the storyline in motion and adds realism to conditions like adversaries and their equipment, weather and other granular factors such as a soldier avatar being too tired to effectively carry out a job.

Secondly, all companies interviewed were concerned with graphics quality, as training effectiveness is diminished by shoddy visuals. Trainees tend to take less seriously representations below what they consumed as part of their entertainment.

“I’m a big fan of realistic graphics for a couple of reasons: one is it helps the trainee take it more seriously—as trainees 15 years ago did not necessarily grow up playing computer games. Trainees now have grown up with Xboxes and Playstations and have a very low threshold of tolerance for bad graphics,” Avgikos said. Before entering the defense and law enforcement markets, his company created 3D graphics for Hollywood blockbusters like Godzilla and Independence Day, among others.

Still, there are many limitations that make these tools part of a wider training effort.

Digimation issues law enforcement and military exact replicas of the weapons employed, but these cannot fully replace fire range training.

Despite realistic graphics and firearms, many trainees tend to train in a more relaxed mood, Avgikos explained. For example, during one exercise, officers were being fired upon in the simulation and were not taking cover, so the level of realism had to be turned up.

“We’ve partnered with a company called SKIF. They’re a Ukrainian company, and they make a lot of training equipment, including this kind of high-end laser tag equipment,” Avgikos said. “So what we are using from them is a tactical vest that you put on, and a band that uses Taser-like [electronic] technology to provide a shock” when the trainee gets hit.

This will be rolled out in a future version of the suite, and it is expected to increase anxiety levels closer to what they would be in real-world scenarios.

Complex military operations do not demand such levels of nervousness; still, manufacturers face different challenges. Aircraft simulators are well developed, and given the right technical conditions, these could be integrated into tank and other military kit training, enhancing communication and collaboration skills between these crews.

Also, electronic and cyber-warfare scenarios can be programmed into these virtual worlds, as well as drones, missiles and other elements.

The problem is that an artillery unit cannot really work on key aspects of its instruction, for example.

“The task of loading a shell into an artillery piece isn’t really done in a computer game, but the task of the forward observer who calls the shots onto targets, that’s a fantastic thing you can train,” Morrison explained.

Peter Morrison
The task of loading a shell into an artillery piece isn’t really done in a computer game, but the task of the forward observer who calls the shots onto targets, that’s a fantastic thing you can train.
Peter Morrison
Chief Commercial Officer, Bohemia Interactive Simulations

In addition to limits on realism, there are potential health effects.

During recent training using Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles, an augmented reality visor designed for the military, soldiers reported suffering from  headaches, nausea and other ailments, according to news agency Bloomberg and Business Insider, citing a summary report of a study written by military officials. Microsoft declined SIGNAL Media’s requests for comment. The Army initially agreed to an interview but cancelled for reasons unknown.

HoloLens is part of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System initiative, a larger program between the technology company and the Army. Reports like the one cited above serve to inform updated versions of these visors.

This product is expected to serve a dual use in combat and training as “an architecture that allows the soldier to fight, rehearse, and train using a single platform,” according to a release by the Army when the contract was announced in March 2021.

Still, this appears to be the way of the future for all armies. Korea trains in this manner and so does China, according to the Technavio report, as well as several armed forces around the world.

For the Marines, it is about the future and funding.

“The proliferation of missile systems, loitering munitions, unmanned systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and other modern weapons pose an enormous challenge to our ability to train collectively and foster combat readiness,” Parker, the Marines spokesperson, said via email.

“These systems will quickly outpace our current training infrastructure and exceed environmental and other local governmental policies,” Parker said.

The Marines expect to field Project Tripoli in 2023, and it is predicted it will make the force more capable and lethal.

HoloLens goggles, Microsoft’s advanced holographic glasses, repotredly made service members sick during a recent test. Credit: Conrad Johnson, U.S. Army
HoloLens goggles, Microsoft’s advanced holographic glasses, repotredly made service members sick during a recent test. Credit: Conrad Johnson, U.S. Army