The Army’s Dream Lab

The Army’s Dream Lab

The Institute for Creative Technologies makes Star Wars–type simulations for Army personnel

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The automatic double doors at the Institute for Creative Technologies' seaside headquarters in West Los Angeles neatly snap open just as they do on the Starship Enterprise. And sitting inside ICT's sleek virtual-reality theater, which features a Cinerama screen, a "rumble floor" with ten subsonic "transducers" and a ceiling with twinkling blue lights, you could easily imagine you are on the Star Trek command bridge alongside Captain Kirk.

But this is the Pentagon's little piece of Hollywood. So at my side is Dr. Mike Andrews, chief scientist of the US Army and described as "founder of and inspiration behind" the ICT.

ICT was launched two years ago with a five-year, $45 million Army grant. Its mission, as defined by executive director Richard Lindheim, is to "mix showbiz with science…to combine Hollywood magic with the real world." More concretely, ICT seeks to develop the most advanced modeling and simulation technologies to train US troops for modern warfare through the use of virtual-reality computer games. According to Andrews, the first use of ICT games in training is still "a couple of years away."

ICT is administered by the private University of Southern California, which stands to profit from sales of technology and products. In addition to games made solely for the Army, ICT is also developing, with investment from Sony and another firm called Quicksilver, two combat training games that will be used by the Army and sold commercially.

Hollywood veterans abound at ICT: They include Lindheim, a former executive at NBC, MCA Television Group/Universal Studios and Paramount Television Group; James Korris, the creative director, former COO and founder of MCA TV Entertainment; and Jacquelyn Ford Morie, manager of one of ICT's training development projects and a former lead designer for Disney's feature animation department. All this talent, combined with some of the best and the brightest drafted from the digital design trenches, has allowed ICT to come up with world-class games aimed at teaching US troops what are called command decision skills.

As the lights dim in the VR theater, and the exquisitely rendered scenario unfolds on the wraparound screen, the viewer finds himself in the Bosnian countryside, bumping noisily along a back road in an Army Humvee. The ground rumbles and shakes as a chopper also arrives at the pivotal scene–a collision between a US Army vehicle and a civilian car, leaving a Bosnian child seriously injured. The trainee must now make split-second leadership decisions: Soothe the angry crowd that is gathering around the child and his distraught mother, or move on to quell a military confrontation somewhere up the road? The trainee, wearing a virtual-reality helmet, talks to the lifelike characters onscreen who, armed with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, are able to logically respond to almost any command.

Later, I accompany chief scientist Andrews to an adjacent ICT facility where he cuts the ribbon on the think tank's newest project, "Flatworld"–a room-sized "set" that, when viewed through 3-D glasses, can transform itself from a training site in Bosnia, to one in the desert, to one on an alien planet. At one point, a monarch butterfly flutters outside an artificial window and then, apparently, flies inside the room and hovers at our nose–a technology filched directly from Disneyland.

And that points to a concern: While the technology is impressive, the scripts and scenarios are cooked up by Hollywood writers and video-game masters–not by linguists, historians or political scientists. Some might say that the current conflict in Afghanistan has its roots not in a lack of US technology but rather in a paucity of human intelligence. That thought was impossible to avoid while watching the training scenario set in Bosnia. At the trainee's feet lay the grieving mother of the injured child, the potential catalyst for an explosion by the local villagers. But she conveniently never spoke up. If she had, it would not have been in English, the only language the trainee is likely to understand.

But Dr. Neil Sullivan, vice provost of research at ITC's parent, USC, expresses confidence. "When we started out two years ago, we thought these were very curious communities [academia, the military and the entertainment industry] to be partnering; we thought it would be Mission Impossible. But ITC now has real products that are going to have real effects on Army training. And who can doubt that training isn't helpful?"

More training can never hurt. But even after all the gee-whiz razzmatazz of the virtual-reality immersion experience, one doubt still nags: Wouldn't American soldiers be better off getting trained in the language, history and culture of the countries to which they are dispatched than spending hours talking to people who look like them on a computer screen?

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