Virtual combat training

Jeffrey Cowgill in the VR Room

Jeffrey Cowgill says the “cave” is helping soldiers prepare for combat sniper fire.

It’s a world within a world.

Inside that world, enemy snipers rain their fire down on U.S. soldiers as they patrol the streets of some strange and faraway urban war zone.

While the bullets are fake and the images virtual, the 3-D sights and sounds of war convince the senses. That’s the point of the human-performance research facility owned and operated by Wright State University at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Researchers at VERITAS—Virtual Environmental Research, Interactive Technology and Simulation—are currently experimenting with 3-D audio to help soldiers better identify sniper positions.

Currently, soldiers on patrol must either spot sniper fire themselves, have the general location pointed out to them by fellow soldiers on the ground, or get a description of the location over the radio from low-flying planes or helicopters.

“With 3-D audio, we can present sounds over headphones such that they appear to come from real locations in space external to your head,” said Brian Simpson, research psychologist at the Air Force Research Lab. “So instead of saying, ‘Look at 3 o’clock,’ you play a sound at 3’clock and your eyes are immediately drawn to that location.”

Inside the facility, 3-D images are projected onto 10-by-10-foot walls and a floor. About $2.5 million has been spent on the facility over the years, almost all of it on the visual side.

“When you’re in a virtual environment, you should feel like you’re in it as opposed to just watching it,” said Robert Gilkey, the associate psychology professor who built the facility. “We’ve argued that sound is a big and underrepresented component of that.”

Simpson said effective use of audio can also reduce the amount of time spent trying to process visual information such as looking for the enemy or at maps.

“Somebody who has a God’s-eye view from a helicopter above can lay down audio waypoints telling you where to go,” he said. “You’re able to keep your head up the whole time.”

The auditory system may also help troops keep better track of their fellow soldiers.

“These environments that we’re talking about are very stressful, and there’s a lot going on,” said Terry Rapoch, president and CEO of daytaOhio, which spent over $600,000 to update the projectors and processors in the facility.

“One great outcome would be to establish that the use of 3-D audio reduces the volume of communication and relieves some of the complexity of decision-making.”

Rapoch said the facility is not only useful in testing technologies, but also for improving the associated processes and protocols critical to its successful use.

“You can repeat a task or mission many times, and collect a lot of information about what’s going on,” he said.

The facility is connected to another virtual environmental facility called I-Space at daytaOhio, which is located on the Wright State campus. It enables avatars in both locations to operate in the same virtual world and interact with each other.

“This networked capability was a pretty big leap forward for us and allows us to further explore team performance,” Simpson said.

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