The U.S. Army’s Force 2025 and Beyond program is working to incorporate augmented and virtual reality into live training to help better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat.

Over the past year or so, virtual and augmented reality has made its way into the commercial market in a big way.  High tech headsets like Playstation VR and Oculus Rift provide gamers with immersive experiences that can, at times, seem so realistic that a quick search for people making fools of themselves with VR headsets could leave you entertained for days.  Lower cost headgear that relies on smartphones to provide the visuals have exploded onto the market as well, with even cheaper Google Cardboard alternatives available to those who don’t want to shell out $20 to climb into a virtual world.  Even smart phone games like Pokemon Go rely on an augmented reality to give gamers a sense that the Pikachu they’re chasing is actually alive in the same world the player resides in.

Now, the Army hopes to use the latest trend in video gaming to produce more highly trained and capable soldiers for the battlefield.  By combining real world scenarios with augmented reality, the U.S. Army labs, in conjunctions with the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, hope to create what they call a “synthetic training environment,” or STE, for future soldiers to hone their skills in.

Due to the rapidly expanding industrial base in virtual and augmented reality and government advances in training technologies, the Army is moving out to seize an opportunity to augment readiness,” said Col. Harold Buhl, ARL Orlando and ICT program manager. “With STE, the intent is to leverage commercial advances with military specific technologies to provide commanders adaptive unit-specific training options to achieve readiness more rapidly and sustain readiness longer.”

In effect, Buhl hopes to combine the virtual and augmented reality equipment being produced commercially for video gamers with the latest in Army training gear to create a unique training environment that can be changed through programming to suit the needs of an upcoming mission, or shifts in the Army’s overall training strategy.  This would offer more versatility in the training available to soldiers, all while reducing overall training costs.

STE is a collective training environment that leverages the latest technology for optimized human performance within a multi-echelon, mixed-reality environment. It provides immersive and intuitive capabilities to keep pace with a changing operational environment and enables Army training on joint combined arms operations.” The Army press release reads.

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In effect, augmented reality training would place soldiers in a real environment, allowing them to cover and interact with the terrain just as they would in a combat situation, but would then provide audio and visual signals to the training soldiers via a headset that could offer a wide variety of additions to that training environment, such as attacking opponents, vehicles, or targets.

A Stryker Vehicle Commander in a local training area interacts in real-time with the avatar of a Soldier participating remotely from a collective trainer. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army illustration)

This capability coupled with the immersive and semi-immersive technologies that bring all combat capabilities into the same synthetic environment, add to this quantum leap in training capability, the geo-specific terrain that STE will use in collaboration with Army Geospatial Center and you have the opportunity to execute highly accurate mission rehearsal of a mission and multiple branches and sequels,” Buhl said.

While creating an entirely virtual environment would make it impossible for soldiers to get a real sense of how they need to move in combat, react to terrain, or push through exhaustion, by combining real physical surroundings with virtual opponents and targets, soldiers can actually train the way they’ll fight.

As we develop, demonstrate and transition technologies across the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command that provide solutions to tough Army problems, we never lose sight of focus on Soldiers and commanders,” Buhl said. “These men and women deserve the very best in technology and more importantly in our respect for their leadership, initiative and ingenuity in the use of that technology. STE has tremendous opportunity for the Army if we develop and deliver with that focus.”

To see how augmented reality training could be used, check out the video below of ScopeAR’s system intended for use in training people to maintain industrial equipment.

Featured Image Courtesy of  Solomon203 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons