Military Embedded Systems

Army goes deep into VR/AR for training and combat


October 17, 2022

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

U.S. Army photo/Anthony Sualog, Army Futures Command.

The U.S. Army is putting considerable resources and time into virtual-reality (VR), augmented-reality (AR), and mixed-reality (MR) equipment and training that is intended to make troops on the ground safer and better equipped.

During late summer 2022, Fort Hood’s Close Combat Tactical Training Center hosted 150 soldiers from Fort Bliss (Texas) and Fort Carson (Colorado) as part of an operational assessment led by the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command.

The assessment sought to understand how soldiers interact with the newest software and hardware versions of the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment (STE), a capability that blends virtual, live, and collective training elements to produce an immersive experience that is portable and minimizes use of real firepower and other typically costly, one-time-use training resources.

According to information provided by the Army’s Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI), the STE intends to interact with and augment live training, which will enable the Army to deliver training service directly where needed. The capability will enable the training audience to be trained on all warfighting functions, across all echelons with joint and Unified Action Partners (UAP). The wide-ranging training will include mission rehearsal capability, interfaces with operational networks, training interfaces with battlefield platforms, interfaces to live training instrumentation, and native interoperability with the Common Operating Environment (COE), a defined set of processes used across the military services.

Two pieces of the STE were under test at the Fort Hood assessment: the Information System (STE-IS) and the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer (RVCT). The STE-IS is an intelligent suite of training simulation and management software that enables intuitive access and simultaneous training at multiple locations. The STE-IS also uses the “One World Terrain” 3D mapping dataset that integrates actual terrain imagery from around the world.

The RVCT is described on the PEO STRI website as an adaptable hardware system that connects to the STE-IS to activate collective, mixed-reality training scenarios. The RVCT consists of interactive equipment – including heads-up display, high-resolution monitor, and representational controllers – that enables on-the-ground soldiers, squads, platoons, and companies to navigate exercises using actual and computer-generated movements. The STE-IS-powered family of RVCT systems is intended to replicate key aviation and ground platforms; the Fort Hood assessment focused on RVCT ground systems replicating Abrams, Bradley, and Stryker fighting vehicles, as well as dismounted infantry.

A U.S. Army story on the STE testing noted that soldiers who took part in the assessment were asked to offer ideas on how to enhance current systems, such as by varying the volume of sound effects and making simulated movements smoother.

Col. Cory Berg, Project Manager Soldier Training at PEO STRI, explained to the participants that part of the novel nature of the STE lies in its ability to capitalize on “communally available equipment and capabilities.” According to information from the PEO STRI, the STE software solution will also leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and government off-the-shelf (GOTS) hardware. Moreover, Col. Nick Kioutas, Project Manager Synthetic Environment at PEO STRI, noted that the Army intends to “exploit the new technologies in gaming” as it advances the STE with the help of industry partners.

Further aiding in the development of the STE, said Col. Mike McCarthy of the STE Cross-Functional Team, is the intentional use of a MOSA [Modular Open Systems Approach], which helps to maximize the ease-of-use, efficiency, and adaptability of the equipment under development.

A deployment timeline for the STE has not yet been set; Brig. Gen. William R. Glaser, Director of the STE Cross-Functional Team, calls the development “an effort in progress.”

The Army is also progressing in its large-scale planned rollout of the in-development Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS). The huge program – reported by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to cost more than $20 billion – plans to bring night vision, thermal vision, tactical edge computing, and enhanced situational awareness to infantry soldiers. The headset, based on the Microsoft HoloLens AR goggles, is aimed at giving individual soldiers superior information and awareness, said to be on the level of fighter pilots.

The IVAS headset, according to a story on the Army’s website, is intended to give users enhanced rapid target acquisition, navigation, target marking, and more features, including a field of view nearly twice as wide as those offered by current fielded systems.

A press release from the U.S. Army Program Executive Office Soldier reports that it will deliver 5,000 IVAS 1.0 versions and another 5,000 updated versions during 2023. Initial reports had the Army ordering as many as 40,000 of the headsets. The 2023 deliveries are a delay from the previous planned delivery dates in 2021 and 2022.

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