VR can help soldiers fully prepare for combat.
Virtual Reality could almost be made for military applications, since the key advantage of simulating as opposed to actually engaging in a conflict situation is that nobody gets hurt. According to Brigadier SC Sharma, president of Axis Aerospace, “The military uses VR for everything from training and safety enhancement to analysing military manoeuvres and battlefield positions”. Given even a basic understanding of what teenage gamers do with PS4s, it’s easy to imagine how a more immersive version could provide training for real soldiers. In fact, VR can be extended to the battlefield itself and used as “battlefield visualisation”, says Sharma, “to control combat operations in real time and help commanders assess their options”.
According to René ter Haar from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, VR can also help ‘after the fact’ in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “by exposing veterans to virtual situations that resemble or represent the trauma”. By reliving the situations in a low-threat environment, he argues, they can “process the emotions [associated with] the traumatic events and overcome their PTSD symptoms”.
In future, Haar believes that, as facial animation improves, human interaction factors such as “communication, leadership, awareness and emotion” will become more important in training simulations. A good deal of military activity these days involves ‘peacekeeping’ in unfamiliar cultural environments. VR training can provide experience in ‘soft skills’, explains Haar, such as obtaining meaningful information from civilians, reading body language and understanding the consequences of poorly delivered instructions.
Back in the realm of the joystick, flight simulators date back to the First World War, when ground-based simulators were developed to train air-gunners.
Today, of course, a standard six-degrees-of-freedom platform, force-feedback flight controls and vibrating seats provide a much more realistic simulator experience, not only for flight training but also for the simulation of weapons systems.
Actual combat missions are arguably becoming more like simulators than the real thing, as helmet technology - with its integrated 3D displays and night vision capabilities - increases to the point where pilots and gunners are effectively embedded in the machine.
The US Army is keen to go further, however, by addressing integration. Most training simulations are designed to operate independently, such that pilots in a flight simulator train without interacting with soldiers in a simulated ground-attack exercise. Col John Janiszewski, director of the US Army’s National Simulation Center, hopes to change this with the ‘Future Holistic Training Environment Live Synthetic’. The plan is to create a “live synthetic system that fuses the main areas of simulation into one”, explains Janiszewski, “allowing participants scattered across various centres to fully participate in training exercises in real time”.
It is already common for a ‘pilot’ to control an unmanned aerial vehicle via satellite, from a distant continent. It is possible, without too much reliance on sci-fi, to imagine a scenario in which VR is no longer restricted to training but extends throughout the field of operations, effectively replacing those ‘boots on the ground’.