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My virtual war

Virtual reality training systems simulate in chilling realism battles in built-up terrain and allow users to walk, march and run inside an electronic battlefield

Mark Alpert, Scientific American

War is hell, said American Civil War General William T. Sherman in 1880, and this is still true today. The current conflict in Iraq, which has been going on for more than three years, is exposing American soldiers to horrors that we on the home front can only guess at. However, I recently got a high-tech glimpse into what must be going through the infantry soldiers in Iraq. During a visit to the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), in Washington, D.C., I immersed myself in several virtual reality training systems that simulate the chilling realism of combat in a built environment and allow users to walk, march and run within an electronic battlefield.
The Naval Research Office is developing these systems as part of a six-year, $40 million program called Virtual Technologies and Environments (VIRTE). Most of the work focuses on the needs of the Marine Corps, which is involved in some of the bloodiest battles in Iraq. My first stop at the NRL was a small, windowless room containing the VirtuSphere, a three-foot-tall hollow sphere made of rigid plastic mesh. The VirtuSphere stands on twenty-six wheels, which protrude from a stationary surface.
The wheels allow the ball to spin in place in all directions like the ball of a giant computer mouse. Next to the ball stood one of its inventors, the Russian Nur-Ahmed Latipov, whose company - also called VirtuSphere - is working with VIRTE to integrate this strange device into the training system.
To treat the fish before the facility. He opened the hatch of the VirtuSphere, got inside and started running with all his might like a hamster on his training wheel. Two devices follow the rotating ball from below by sending ultrasound beams towards it and measuring the Doppler shift of the echoes to determine the speed and direction of the rotation. The information goes to virtual reality software that runs on a nearby computer and calculates the path the user would take, if he were to walk through a virtual landscape instead of running around inside the VirtuSphere.
The user wears virtual reality glasses that present the landscape in front of him, the details of which zoom in and out according to the person's movements (the system transmits the data wirelessly to the display glasses through the perforated shell of the VirtuSphere). The glasses also include accelerometers and magnetometers that track changes in the direction of the user's head. If the person turns their head left, right, up or down, their virtual world display rotates accordingly.

Portable and easy-to-operate facilities

The Marine Corps is interested in VirtuSphere because real combat training facilities are expensive and often impractical to set up, especially at temporary bases overseas. The VirtuSphere, on the other hand, can be taken to the front or on ships and assembled in a few hours. However, maneuvering inside the device requires a bit of practice. When I entered the VirtuSphere I had trouble keeping my balance. At first it was relatively easy to walk and change direction, but slowing down and stopping was more difficult. At some point I stepped back and tripped. Still, after a few minutes I felt pretty confident putting on the viewing glasses and starting my virtual journey.

The first program I tried was a 2012D model of a sports center planned for construction in Moscow (Latipov used the program in the past to help Moscow bid for the XNUMX Olympic Games). My legs spun the VirtuSphere in jerky jerky movements, leading me up the stairs and down the deserted corridors of the strange virtual building. I reached a long corridor and along it a row of identical doors, which opened automatically when I approached. "I hope this isn't the women's bathroom," I said as I walked through one of the doors, but the room was empty.

I ended up in an indoor swimming pool, where a surprise awaited me: animated monsters that vaguely resembled insects and robots. I was supposed to shoot the monsters with the manual controller, but it still felt a little unstable. The software, perhaps sensing my lack of skill, created another warrior who appeared at my side as a flickering soldier. While trying to get out of the line of fire I heard a shot. I turned around and saw a splash of blood on the floor. While the software's graphics were no more sophisticated than a normal computer game, the simulated violence seemed much more intense and confusing because I couldn't see everything at once. When I finished the program and left the ball, I was covered in sweat.

The VirtuSphere is not the only device that allows users to walk inside a virtual world. Since VIRTE's goal is to develop and evaluate a variety of technologies, another NRL group led by Jim Templeman is working on a system called Gaiter, which calculates the user's trajectory in a completely different way. To enter the gator I tied to the heads of a display system and wore a vest and hand and shin guards. Reflectors were attached to all these accessories, as well as to the rifle model, capable of returning the radiation beam back to its source regardless of the angle of impact. After that I was connected to a harness that hung from the ceiling.

Virtual war - not for children
Around ten high-speed cameras shot infrared light rays and captured their reflections. By tracking the movement of my shin guards, the Gator system measured how I walked - the length of my strides and the pace of my strides - as I walked in place and moved my legs up and down. This measurement determined how fast I was moving in the virtual world. If I stepped tall and fast I could quickly move through the simulated landscape. I was now engrossed in another project, the reconstruction of a real built terrain warfare training facility at Fort Benning, Georgia. I went on a virtual tour and passed by several brightly colored cubic buildings. When I aimed the gun or held out my hands, I could see their animated replicas on display. I could even knock over imaginary chairs and tables that stood in my way.
The main disadvantage of these systems is the price. The VirtuSphere, for example, costs between fifty and one hundred thousand dollars (the company hopes to sell an entertainment version for arcades at a price of $20,000). Simpler and cheaper platforms may be sufficient for virtual training involving large numbers of Marines. NRL neuroscientist Roy Stripling is developing a system informally called Pod 1, which has no complex motion integration mechanisms – you just need to press a switch mounted on the barrel of the gun to move back and forth in the virtual world. The system nevertheless provides a very realistic visualization, through precise tracking of the movements and directions of the user's upper body, his head and his rifle, all of which are indicated by red LEDs and monitored by an array of cameras.
When I used this system to navigate Fort Benning's plan, I was able to enter one of the cubical buildings, climb the stairs to the second floor, and engage in a firefight with the enemy: a squad of computer-generated thugs. In real life they would have blown me to pieces, but the software aimed for "God" mode and made me bulletproof. I closed in on my opponents and shot them at point blank range. But when I tried to leave the building, I couldn't find the stairs in the maze of dark rooms that were now filled with virtual corpses. I was close to panicking when K. S. Felger, a Marine reservist and independent contractor, said, "Don't worry, I'll get you out." He put on a pair of glasses and entered the visualization. A few moments later his virtual character appeared - an infantryman in camouflage uniform - and led me downstairs.
At this point I was suffering from visualization sickness, a terrible nausea similar to seasickness from too much virtual reality. The NRL scouts told me the experience would allow me to appreciate the rigors of battle, and they were right. I felt a little fear and not a little exhaustion. But more than anything, it put me off. Even virtual war can seem ugly and unnecessary. No matter how many virtual opponents you kill, they keep coming, one after another, a never-ending enemy. And the show doesn't end until the glasses are removed.

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