By Orli Belman
Virtual SSG Jacob Garza is part of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies’ (ICT) Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment installed at Fort Benning, GA. The classroom-based prototype supports the instruction, practice, and assessment of interpersonal communication skills for leadership and counseling. (Photos courtesy of ICT.)
This month, second lieutenants at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, GA, begin interpersonal skills training with the help of SSG Jacob Garza, a virtual human that looks, moves, speaks, and behaves like a real person. Through conversations with this simulated squad leader—who offers consistent responses and never gets tired—young officers will experience what can go right and wrong during informal counseling sessions they may encounter on the job.
Virtual humans are in the Army now. SSG Garza is just the latest in a line of computer-generated characters created by the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). They serve as informational guides, supportive coaches, negotiation partners, practice patients, field interviewees, and more. ICT’s autonomous intelligent agents are just one example of how this Army University-Affiliated Research Center (UARC) combines techniques from Hollywood, gaming, and artificial intelligence to make a real impact on training for the Soldier.
“We are pushing the boundaries of storytelling and science to create meaningful experiences for Soldiers,” said ICT Executive Director Randall W. Hill Jr. “Whether we are creating virtual characters, educational movies, serious games, or immersive environments, our work is all about getting people engaged in order to provide more efficient and effective learning.”
Soldiers can practice stability and counterinsurgency operations using UrbanSim, a video game with built-in behavior and story engines, downloadable from the Army’s MilGaming website (https://milgaming.army.mil). Around 40,000 troops have experienced the Mobile Counter-IED Interactive Trainer, a portable, immersive classroom that ICT developed with industry partners, featuring fictional video vignettes and a computer game. Another system focused on training threat assessment during dismounted operations is expected to deploy soon.
“The USC Institute for Creative Technologies has been able to create virtual characters and make-believe worlds that deliver tangible improvements to how Soldiers learn, practice, and perform in the human dimension.”
With a body of work in virtual humans, first-person narratives, and social simulations, ICT is literally focused on people. In fact, the institute’s Light Stage process for creating digital faces results in such realism that it has been used in major motion pictures including Avatar and earned its inventors an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. But the emphasis at ICT is more than skin-deep. It is about humanizing technology through scenarios and personalities to improve skills in decision-making, cultural awareness, leadership, and coping, to name a few.
“The USC Institute for Creative Technologies has been able to create virtual characters and make-believe worlds that deliver tangible improvements to how Soldiers learn, practice, and perform in the human dimension,” said John Hart, ICT’s Program Manager at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory Simulation Training and Technology Center in Orlando, FL.
In addition to Fort Benning’s SSG Garza, other ICT virtual humans include the life-size SGT Star virtual human demonstration. He was built for the U.S. Army Accessions Command to take on the road and field questions about Army life. The soon-to-be released SimCoach features Web-based characters that converse with anonymous users and point them to mental health resources. More virtual humans can be found in BiLAT, a cross-cultural negotiation-training game that is also available on MilGaming, and in Virtual Sick Call, a prototype for clinical skills practice.
ICT virtual characters and supporting architecture contributed to the Army’s Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Tactical Proficiency Trainer. Within Program Executive Office Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation, a Project Manager Constructive Simulation value engineering proposal deemed that incorporating ICT-based natural language capabilities in the project saved the Army close to $35 million.
“Many people don’t know that as an Army UARC, ICT can be task-ordered to develop a diverse array of prototypes,” said Hart. “They are able to make a difference in Soldiers’ lives before, during, and after deployment.”
Several ICT efforts expose troops to battlefield stress and decisions before they actually face them. The institute produced the film series Fallen Eagle for an Army Chaplaincy-led ethics training and recently began work on a medical virtual reality project that incorporates dramatic arcs to provide pre-deployment resilience training. Many of the visuals for this immersive experience come from Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan, the ICT-developed virtual reality exposure therapy for treating post-traumatic stress. Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan is in use in 55 military, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and university-based clinical sites, including the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and National Intrepid Center of Excellence.
Other medically related projects include the development of customized motor rehabilitation games that can be used at home or in a clinic, and virtual worlds that provide evidence-based stress reduction techniques.
“People today are comfortable with computer-based systems for work and play,” said Hill. “Our goal is to transform them into tools for learning and healing.”
For more information about ICT, visit www.ict.usc.edu.
For video overviews of ICT programs, visit:
http://youtu.be/5y9bawuSR94 (ICT overview).
http://youtu.be/GL5Gerkc2fE (Virtual Human).
http://youtu.be/Wbtj_R5oN5w (Medical Virtual Reality).
http://youtu.be/Fh9gIswxbvU (Mixed Reality).
http://youtu.be/E1BKaKnx_fE (ICT Graphics Lab).
ORLI BELMAN is the Public Relations and Projects Manager at the USC ICT. She has a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from UCLA and an M.A. in journalism from Columbia University.
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