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Army researchers explore benefits of immersive technology for soldiers

VR Cover

The emergence of next generation virtual and augmented reality devices like the Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens has increased interest in using mixed reality to simulate training, enhance command and control, and improve the effectiveness of warfighters on the battlefield.

It is thought that putting mission relevant battlefield data, such as satellite imagery or body-worn sensor information, into an immersive environment will allow warfighters to retrieve, collaborate and make decisions more effectively than traditional methods.

However, there is currently little evidence in the scientific literature that using immersive technology provides any measurable benefits, such as increased task engagement or improved decision accuracy.

There are also limited metrics that can be used to assess these benefits across display devices and tasks.

Researchers at RDECOM's Army Research Laboratory, the Army's corporate research laboratory (ARL), in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Army's Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, have set out to change this.

"Virtual Reality" Was Coined in 1987. While immersive experiences (depending on the definition) have been around for decades, the actual term most people use to describe them is relatively new. The term “virtual reality” was conceived by Jaron Lanier in 1987, during an intense period of research around this form of technology.

In a recently published paper, the researchers surveyed potential methods for assessing the usefulness of immersive systems, discuss how the data might be acquired in experimental and tactical scenarios, as well as pose issues in multi-user collaboration.

This paper is one of the first to survey metrics and methods that are relevant to the unique problems that warfighters may face when performing decision-making in command and control or intelligence analysis scenarios.

In addition, the researchers discuss the ARL-developed Mixed Reality Tactical Analysis Kit, or MRTAK, which functions as an experimental platform to perform these assessments during collaborative mission planning and execution. MRTAK is now being developed as the mixed reality module of project AURORA (Accelerated User Reasoning for Operations, Research, and Analysis), as AURORA-MR.

This research was recently presented at the 23rd International Command and Control Information and Technology Symposium held in Pensacola, Florida.

"Our survey of the existing literature determined that new methods and metrics are essential to ensure that future basic and applied research can efficiently and accurately assess performance differences between immersive technologies and traditional 2-D systems," said Dr. Mark Dennison, research psychologist in ARL's Battlefield Information Processing Branch stationed at ARL West in Playa Vista, California.

It’s not all going to be plastic. Today, virtually everyone loves everything about VR, which accounts for the magnitude of its success. But the technology continues to evolve at a breakneck speed. One focus of technological advances related to VR is the engineering and design of the headset. Expectedly, there are ultra high-tech and complicatedly designed headsets out there. But some tech wizards have taken it one step further, thereby making it way more accessible to everyone. Now, there are tutorials about making VR headsets out of pieces of cardboard. Not only has this opened a plethora of possibilities for VR, it has gotten people to think in creative ways to upsize their experiences.

According to Dennison, their work has often shown that researchers in this field have performed studies where collected data do not allow for useful metrics to be reported on, making it difficult or impossible for key decision-makers to determine how, when and where immersive technology provides any benefit or deficit to specific mission or task needs.

"In this paper, we suggest a paradigm shift away from simply comparing non-immersive and immersive systems on similar tasks, and instead meticulously breaking down complex decision-making into component processes that can be more accurately modeled and compared across disparate display types," Dennison said. "For example, when studying the planning of a tactical operation, such as the breach and clear of a hostile building, the same spatial information must be present in the 2D and VR experimental conditions to allow for precise quantitative comparisons.

As part of this research into collaborative immersive analytics, the researchers developed and deployed AURORA-MR, which serves as a test-bed to perform tightly controlled basic and applied research of multi-user decision making with distributed immersive systems.

Currently, AURORA-MR is being used for collaborative immersive analytics research in Maryland at ARL headquarters at the Adelphi Laboratory Center and Aberdeen Proving Ground, in California at ARL West and the ICT's Mixed Reality Lab, and at the University of Minnesota.

The VFX-1. We can’t do a list about the history of Virtual Reality and not include the VFX-1. Released in the middle of the 1990s, the VFX-1 system was one of the most capable virtual reality headsets released on the market at the time. With stereoscopic 3D, multi-axis head movement detection and rotation, and the ability to play games that were not truly supported by the system, the VFX-1 was the true Virtual Reality deal at the time. Furthermore, their price tag was relatively cheap compared to other products on the market, coming at a mere $600. However, the VFX-1 was too advanced of a technology and it didn’t really take off. Later on, the company Vuzix that made the glasses was bought by Forte Technologies, which released a more expensive VFX 3D version, but it also didn’t manage to achieve huge success.

The system has also been demonstrated to NATO SET-256, the Air Force's TAP Lab, and was featured at the AUSA 2018 Global Force Innovator's Corner.

According to the researchers, research conducted with AURORA-MR will enable the Soldier to understand when visualizing and interacting with critical battlefield information might be best done in an immersive system, or in collaboration with others using traditional systems.

"Through virtualization of some or all elements of the Tactical Operations Center, commanders and intelligence analysts can communicate and collaborate without the constraints of a physical building and with a reduced footprint to enemy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR," Dennison said.

The design of AURORA-MR seeks to enable easy integration with other databases, sensors and machine learning so that joint research can more fluidly occur internally across ARL and externally with their academic and industry partners.

"Currently, we are evolving the network powering AURORA-MR, called AURORA-NET, to allow for greater control over the information that is sent and received by clients, while ensuring that the virtual environment is rendered at a comfortable frame rate to minimize the crippling effects of motion sickness on immersed users," Dennison said. "This will enable us to conduct research on how ingestion and analysis of data from noisy systems, such as the Internet of Battlefield Things, can be augmented through distributed collaboration in mixed reality."

All Generations Love It. While some critics view virtual reality as something only young people like, it turns out that even previous generations largely approve of the technology. Currently, millennials are the generation most likely to embrace virtual reality, but apparently older generations are also getting on the bandwagon. One study found that a majority of baby boomers have a favorable perspective of virtual reality. A big reason behind the popularity is the versatility of many virtual reality systems.

AURORA-MR started development as a single-user VR environment in December 2017. It is actively being developed and a connection was recently established in November 2018 allowing remote collaboration with researchers at APG.

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