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Army tests virtual systems for soldier training

December 26, 1997
Web posted at: 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- While it's still effective to send infantry soldiers crawling through the mud during basic training, the U.S. Army is testing four virtual-reality systems that can simulate battlefields and teach specialized skills.

For six weeks, soldiers put four systems through the paces at Fort Benning, Georgia. Each system can measure performance, movements and communications.

Reflectors, sensors track movements

One system, Dismounted Soldier Simulation, is for foot soldiers, who have small reflectors mounted on their uniforms and equipment. The camera picks up the reflections and sends them to a computer, which determines the position of the soldier's body.

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"All it is is reflective tape, which is reflected by lights attached to all the cameras," said Charlie Jones of Veda Inc., which makes the system.

"The magic's done in the computer," Army Operations Analyst Billy Potter explained, "and that source data projects the individual into the virtual battlespace."

Another system measures stress

The second system, the Team Tactical Engagement Simulator, combines a rear-projection display with devices mounted on the soldier's helmet to track the location of the weapon and soldier's body through the virtual environment.

soldier in training
Virtual reality training  

A third system, from Virtual Space Devices, hasn't been named yet, but soldiers call it ODT for its omni-directional treadmill.

Tethers help soldiers maintain their balance as they walk on the treadmill, while sensors monitor body movements and relay them to a computer. The computer can change the scenery accordingly on a life-sized screen that the soldier can watch. The system causes realistic physical stress.

"When the soldier walks up a hill, he can break a sweat. That's the unique feature of this device," a tester said.

Advantages vs. cost

Each system costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is a tough sell because of the Pentagon's shrinking budget.

A government-developed prototype, the Soldier Visualization Station, may be able to do the same things for less money. Similar to a video game, it runs on a $10,000 PC.

Soldiers manipulate a joystick and touch buttons and touchscreens to move around in a virtual combat zone. The harder they press on the joystick's thumbswitch, the faster they travel.

The station can show three views of the world -- daylight, nighttime and infrared.

While it has no treadmill and no sensors on guns and uniforms, it provides the same visual feedback as the other systems, testers said.

All four virtual systems let soldiers examine the locations of prospective battles or peacekeeping missions. They let the soldiers experience the terrain of their future missions by replicating it, Potter explained.

"That would allow some level of mission rehearsal," he said. "He can walk the streets. He can walk the trails."

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