Virtual Reality Past, Present, and Future: Part 1

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Virtual reality (VR) is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as in imaginary worlds.  This can vary from flight and other vehicle simulators, to video games, to immersion programs for training of military tactics, to medical and therapeutic uses.

The beginnings of virtual reality are nothing like we know them today, but they did start with a visionary.  In the 1960s Ivan Sutherland developed a light pen for interacting with computer displays, known at the Sketchpad, and by the end of the decade the first computer mouse was invented.  These revolutionized the way humans interacted with computers and set the stage for the future.  Following WWII the military became interested in VR technology and began developing it for flight simulators.  They realized the value of being able to train pilots on the ground before subjecting them to the dangers of actual flight.[1]

In the 70’s the entertainment industry began playing with VR and the popular movie Star Wars was born, which was a major advancement in the industry.  Video games were revolutionized by VR in the 80’s and the first data glove, a way to interact with computers through movements of the hand, was born.  This led to the Power Glove, which was made popular through Nintendo games of the day.  Eventually, the military also developed shooting simulators, that would allow soldiers to fire realistic weapons at a computer screen displaying pixelated enemies, without the need for excessive expenditure on live ammunition.[2]

Simulators are still a large part of VR application for the military these days, but they have advanced significantly since the first box with a joystick and a computer display.  Today haptic technology, computers interacting with humans through sense of touch, has helped to make flight simulators replicate the actual feeling of being in a high performance aircraft.  Advances in computing power, displays, and cameras have driven the technology to where training pilots on the ground can very closely resemble flying a plane in real time, in a lifelike scenario.  This technology is also being used for other vehicles, such as Strikers, tanks, and submarines. Though VR simulators are quite expensive to produce initially, the re-use capabilities and the cost saving of not having to keep the much more expensive real equipment around pays off significantly in the long run.

Other types of simulation that the military is using involve Virtual Humans.  One example is the Mission Rehearsal Exercise System, developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California.  This technology allows military trainees to enter realistic virtual environments with believable characters that they can interact with.  This is designed to teach leadership and decision-making skills to small-unit leaders.  The idea is that by dealing with life-like situations in a safe virtual world, the young soldier will be better prepared for the situation when he faces it in combat.  During times of war, this virtual reality technology can have significant cost saving value from a time, money, personnel, and resource aspect, with the added benefit of being in safe environment.[3]

An example that takes the virtual environment training a step further is the Virtual Squad Training System (VSTS) at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.  The VSTS is a wearable and wireless system that allows soldiers to move unencumbered through a virtual world, such as an urban environment that would take significant space, personnel, and money to run in the real world.  Service-members use a load-bearing vest for the batteries, a head mounted display with motion tracker, a body motion tracker, and a realistic wireless weapon to move around the virtual battlefield.  Usually a series of treadmills will be used to limit the space needed for the environment.[4]

Advances in computer networking have helped to advance the military applications of virtual reality as well.  Large battles can take place in several locations at the same time, meaning service-members can interact with each other in virtual worlds, without having to be in the same location.  Tanks can practice firing upon each other and aircraft can be integrated into the battle as well, potentially all from the safety of a virtual room.  That is a significant savings on fuel costs, not to mention all of the other logistics an exercise of this type might have.[5]

Today we use VR not only for training and safety reasons, but also for complex analysis of battlefield environments.  The Dragon Battlefield Visualization Systemdisplays a three-dimensional representation of the battle space, which includes a terrain map, entities representing friendly, enemy, unknown, and neutral units, and symbology representing other features such as obstructions or key points in the plan of operations.’[6]  Commanders and military planners, with technology taken from advances in satellite imagery like Google Earth and SketchUp, can simultaneously view and interact with a 3-D map, looking at a realistic rendition of the battle space from all angles.[7]

An even more advanced version of the Dragon system was completed earlier this year by DARPA.  The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display (UPSD) ‘creates a real-time, color, 360-degree 3D holographic display to assist battle planners. Without having to wear 3D goggles or glasses, a team of planners can view a large-format, interactive 3D display. Presently UPSD is a scalable display platform that can be expanded from a six-inch diagonal size up to a six-foot diagonal, in both monochrome and color formats.’ [8]  Next week I will discuss the future of Virtual Reality and the national security implications of this potentially disruptive technology.



[1] Virtual Reality: History.  (1995)  University of Illinois Retrieved From http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/Cyberia/VETopLevels/VR.History.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hill, R., Gratch, J., Marsella, S., Rickel, J., Swartout, W., and Traum, D.  (N. Y.) Virtual Humans In The Mission Rehearsal Exercise System.  Retrieved from class documents.

[4]Shinsato, C. (2010) U.S. Army news. Retrieved from http://www.army.mil/article/41203/Virtual_Squad_Training_simulates_patrolling_techniques__tasks/; Strickland, Jonathan.  "How Virtual Reality Military Applications Work"  27 August 2007.  HowStuffWorks.com.   Retrieved from <http://science.howstuffworks.com/virtual-military.htm>  17 October 2011.

[5] Briggs, John C. (1996), The Promise of Virtual Reality., Vol. 30, The Futurist, Retrieved from http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/virtualreality_promise.html

[6] Jim Durbin, Simon Julier, Brad Colbert, John Crowe, Bob Doyle, Rob King, Tony King, Chris Scannell, Zachary Wartell, Terry Welsh, (1998). "Making Information Overload Work: The Dragon software system on a Virtual Reality Responsive Workbench" SPIE AeroSense Conference, Vol. 3393, pp. 96-107.

[7] Strickland, Jonathan.  "How Virtual Reality Military Applications Work"  27 August 2007.  HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved from <http://science.howstuffworks.com/virtual-military.htm>  17 October 2011.

[8]http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2011/2011/03/24_DARPA_Successfully_Completes_3D_Holographic_Display_Technology_Demonstration_Program.aspx

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