The avatars coming to soldiers’ virtual reality boot camp training won’t be a creation of Hollywood on a distant planet – and they likely will be even less friendly than those drawn from the mind of James Cameron. Plus, these boots on the ground training missions will be made even more realistic than a 3-D movie by running simulations on wearable devices rather than confining users to the front of a PC  - or a coffin-like generator as seen in “Avatar.”

Rather than Hollywood, these avatars and simulations also will have Triangle roots in training some of the Army’s best through simulations of combat on Earth.

This is another deserved  medal on the chest for the Triangle’s gaming industry.

Almost since the start of the “War on Terror,” the U.S. Army has worked with Triangle-based companies to train its soldiers for battles far afield with virtual reality technology. On Monday, the latest evolution in that relationship was disclosed as part of the Army’s “Dismounted Soldier Training System,” or DSTS.

The virtual reality platform from defense contractor Intelligent Decisions (ID) will run on Cary-based Epic Games’ Unreal 3 engine. The new contract continues the Pentagon’s decade-long tradition of training soldiers with Triangle-based Virtual Heroes, which is part of Applied Research Associates.

DSTS sounds as if it comes right out of the next science fiction movie or Epic “Gears of War” title.

“Unreal Engine 3 will give ID’s training scenario composers the ability to integrate an incoming fire haptic feedback system, full skeletal controls, and to customize terrain, weather, enemy forces, and other treacherous aspects of real life combat missions,” said Clarence Pape, vice president of Simulation and Training at Intelligent Decisions, in announcing the contract. 

While financial terms were not disclosed, this is another significant feather in the cap for Virtual Heroes, Epic and the Unreal Government Network (UGN), which is a partnership between Virtual Heroes, ARA and Epic.Intelligent Decisions licensed rights to Epic’s Unreal through the UGN.

Unreal already is used across multiple computing and gaming platforms around the world with the latest version, Unreal 4, being embraced by advanced chip maker NVIDIA to push cutting-edge gaming on mobile devices.

Now, ID will embrace Unreal technology to take simulation mobile.

The contract also includes much more than just access to code. UGN will be providing technical support, training, and simulation tools.

Roots of the Deal

The Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command awarded a contract to Intelligent Decisions for the creation of a “realistic training environment” that includes autonomous avatars.

DSTS is described as “a fully immersive virtual simulation training and rehearsal system for U.S. soldiers. This cutting-edge system enables soldiers, leaders and units to train in a virtual training environment and is used by the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation to increase the quality of instruction and combat preparedness.”

Jerry Heneghan, the founder of Virtual Heroes and a former Apache combat helicopter pilot himself, hailed the new deal. “ID consistently leads the simulation industry with its end-to-end customized virtual training programs and the adaptation of wearable device integration for training and mission rehearsal,” Heneghan, who is licensing manager for UGN, said.

Virtual Heroes began working with the Army way back in 2004 as the Pentagon enhanced its “America’s Army” training game, which dates to July 2002. There have been 26 versions of America’s Army since launch, according to Virtual Heroes.

More than a game, the program evolved with Virtual Heroes’ assistance to include multiple tasks:

  • Force Protection
  • Adaptive Thinking and Leadership
  • Maintenance Training
  • Convoy Survivability Training
  • Mission Rehearsal
  • Shortage MOS Training
  • Artificial Intelligence (Individual, Squad and Command Level)
  • Physics for ground and air vehicles (manned and unmanned)
  • Revised Damage Models (avatars & vehicles)
  • Embedded training
  • Rapid prototyping with real-world digital terrain elevation data
  • Interoperability with constructive learning techniques
  • Comprehensive After-Action-Reports (AAR) and statistics training

Virtual Heroes has over the years been involved in many more projects, from “serious games” to virtual training for healthcare workers and creation of a virtual moon base for NASA. Now comes a new frontier in training.

Given the ever-changing field of technology and its impact on war, what’s next?

Who knows? Maybe Unreal 4 and Virtual heroes will be part of the first truly autonomous combat robots.