The military uses virtual reality technology for almost everything, from training and safety enhancement to analyse military manoeuvres and battlefield positions
Virtual reality (VR) is artificial creation of situations that appear ‘real’ to our senses. It is immersive multimedia that is computer-simulated. It can simulate physical presence in places in the real or imagined worlds. VR can recreate sensory experiences, including virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, touch, etc. VR environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. For a common man, experiences of VR are mostly limited to movies.
Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback in medical, gaming and military applications. Furthermore, VR covers remote communication environments that provide virtual presence of users with the concepts of telepresence and telexistence or a virtual artifact (VA), either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal devices such as a wired glove, the Polhemus and omnidirectional treadmills. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a life-like experience — for example, in simulations for pilot or combat training — or it can differ significantly from reality, such as in virtual reality games.
VR for military
Along with the entertainment industry, the military is responsible for the most dramatic evolutionary leaps in the VR field. Virtual environments work well in military applications. When well-designed, they provide the user with an accurate simulation of real events in a safe and controlled environment.
Specialised military training can be very expensive. Some training procedures have an element of danger when using real life situations. While the initial development of VR gear and software is expensive, in the long run, it is much more cost effective than putting soldiers into real or physically simulated situations. VR technology has other potential applications that can make military activities safer.
That is why when first experiments with Head-Mounted Displays (HMD) began, the military was excited. A user wearing an HMD could control where the camera is pointed by turning his head. Today the military uses VR techniques not only for training and safety enhancement, but also to analyse military maneuvers and battlefield positions.
Out of many VR technology applications, military vehicle simulations have probably been the most successful. Simulators use sophisticated computer models to replicate a vehicle’s capabilities and limitations within a stationary — and safe — computer station. Possibly, the most well known of all the simulators in the military are the flight simulators. The air force, army and navy all use flight simulators to train pilots. Training missions may include how to fly in a battle, how to recover in an emergency, or how to coordinate air support with ground operations.
Although not as high profile as flight simulators, VR simulators for ground vehicles are an important part of the military’s strategy. In fact, simulators are a key part of the Future Combat System (FCT), the foundation of the armed forces’ future. These consist of a networked battle command system and advanced vehicles and weapons platforms. Computer scientists designed FCS simulators to link together in a network, facilitating complex training missions involving multiple participants acting in various roles.
The Army uses several specific devices to train soldiers to drive specialised vehicles. They not only accurately recreate the look and feel of the vehicle they represent, but also can replicate any environment. Trainees can learn how the real vehicle handles in treacherous weather conditions or difficult terrain. Networked simulators allow users to participate in complex war games.
Simulators can be pretty expensive. Still, when you compare that against the cost of an actual vehicle (which, depending upon the model variant, could be millions of dollars) and keep in mind that the soldier behind the controls will be safe from harm, it’s easy to justify the cost.
Today, many training facilities are using simulators to familiarise soldiers with counter insurgency (CI). Simulators give the military a chance to teach soldiers how to navigate and operate effectively within CI landscapes and what to expect from the insurgent when confronted. Counter Insurgency Operational Planning Tool and Wargame have been developed for this purpose.
Apart from familiarising soldiers with some of the most complex vehicles in the military fleet, trainers have discovered that virtual environments can come in handy in other applications as well. Military officials and video game studios have partnered to create realistic, immersive virtual scenarios that help soldiers acclimatise to various combat environments and situations. An Aircraft Recognition Trainer wherein different aircraft, individually or in formations, fly in operations like situation in battlegrounds with surround sound effects and soldiers are taught to identify them. 118 Aircraft models and 42 terrain configurations have been modelled. Magnification of binoculars can also be simulated.
Military officials are quick to stress that virtual training in no way replaces actual training. While virtual environments continue to support useful training applications, the military requires soldiers to undergo extensive training on real courses. The armed forces don’t see virtual reality replacing real training techniques in the future. However, there are some situations that will never be experienced outside war. How can training be provided on enemy aircraft jamming own Air Defence (AD) Systems and train the AD operator to track the enemy aircraft by employing appropriate ECCM techniques? A class Room Electronic Warfare Simulators (CREWS) wherein sorties of enemy aircraft can be simulated using preprogrammed or on-the-fly ECM to jam AD and the reactions of the AD operators to gain control has been developed.
Another application of VR is in the field of battlefield visualisation to control combat operations in real time. It may be a key element in the training regimen of commanders. It helps commanders assess their options before making decisions that could risk a soldier’s life.
The military needs to look at VR workbench as a display technology for battlefield visualisation. The viewer wears a pair of special goggles that create the illusion of three dimensional battlefield. Multiple users may view the same display at the same time by wearing the special goggles.
As personal computer and graphic card becomes more powerful, the need for specialised display technology decreases. Today, a laptop can meet such needs for visualisation. It is possible to adapt commercial software and hardware packages for this purpose. You don’t get the same level of immersion when working with a personal computer as you would with a dedicated VR system, but the computers are much less expensive and easy to network.
It is also possible to watch films and television programmes with an HMD and computer control the image so that the viewer appears to be inside the scene. Displays present the view that corresponds to the direction the viewer is facing, through a system of head tracking. This would give the viewers the feeling that they are actually going to the scene in person instead of looking at pictures on a screen. VR enables us to do so without the risk of death or a serious injury. Soldiers can re-enact a particular scenario, for example, engagement with an enemy in an environment in which they experience this but without the real world risks. This has proven to be safer and less costly than traditional training methods.