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American Forces Press Service

Fighting Bombs in Cyberspace Gives Army an 'EDGE'

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2011 – Afghan people and places are being replicated in cyberspace, giving warfighters a way to train for one of the most complex, deadly situations they will face on the ground.

The fight against improvised explosive devices or homemade bombs -- weapons of choice for terrorists everywhere -- has lots of moving parts. That’s why the Joint IED Defeat Organization here is funding a research project prototype that combines technology from virtual worlds, Army simulations and computer gaming.

“We’re down here today working on a product called EDGE -- Enhanced Dynamic Geosocial Environment,” Matt Kaufman, chief of technology and integration at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, told American Forces Press Service. The command sponsors the JIEDDO-funded prototype, which has been in development for about six months.

Kaufman and other experts at the Army Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, Fla., talked about the effort to integrate “massively multiplayer” online gaming technology like that used in the wildly popular World of Warcraft game, with a virtual world environment and an accurate Army simulation called OneSAF, short for One Semi Automated Forces.

“Our goal,” Kaufman said, “is to be able to recreate the devices, people and activities [that make up the counter-IED effort] in the operational environment as accurately as possible to forces in training.”

When the EDGE prototype is complete, warfighters headed for the war zone will be able to enter, as digital replicas of themselves called “avatars,” a near-exact virtual Afghan village. There, they will be able to practice the work they will do on the ground to search out and destroy roadside bombs, and to track down and disrupt the bomb-making networks whose members fund and supply explosive materials to those they can convince to build and plant the bombs.

Training isn’t the only benefit. In a virtual Afghanistan, if something goes wrong, no one dies.

“That’s where we’re hoping to take EDGE,” said Doug Maxwell, science and technology manager for virtual world and strategic applications at the training and technology center.

EDGE will combine the digital technologies, he added, “so we can leverage the best of both to deliver very quickly to a large audience what we know is going on in the theaters.”

In a counterinsurgency or in irregular warfare, the complexity of the operational environment isn’t just the kinetic piece, said Ben Jordan, director of the operational environment lab models and simulations directorate in TRADOC’s Intelligence Support Activity.

“There is also the noncombatant battle space, the whole notion of how to communicate with elders and clergy and community leaders, build rapport, spot bad guys in a crowd and discern attitudes and how they change,” Jordan said. “These are the kinds of things you can get at.”

Second- and third-order effects a warfighter can’t get in a five-day linear exercise that starts on a Tuesday and ends on a Friday come into play over time, Jordan noted, citing a benefit of the technology.

The combination of technologies that produce EDGE could create a system that’s more sophisticated than any one technology alone.

“What we’re trying to do that’s different from everyone else is combine the capabilities of modern gaming technologies with the accuracy and approved models of the Army through OneSAF,” Kaufman said. “As you look at any of the other games today, what’s missing is the accuracy of the valid physics or models that make them good enough to begin to make behavior changes based on [the gaming scenarios].”

For example, Kaufman said, “when you shoot a bullet, it flies accurately, not just in a straight line.” Most games shortcut the physics, he said, because it takes a lot of computing power to make a virtual world act like the real world, and games focus more on the entertainment and artwork.

“In a training environment where you’ve got to make sure the outcomes are precise, if you don’t understand where the shortcuts have been taken, you can make false assumptions because of what you see in front of you, not because of what really happens,” Kaufman said.

Gaming technology becomes much more persuasive to a user when it is laid on top of a virtual world environment, STTC lead engineer Tami Griffith said.

“Let’s say you and I are standing together in a virtual environment and we decide to build a car,” she said. “I can in seconds throw together the framework of a car. You could say, ‘That’s nice, but I don’t like the lights.’ So you could in real time move the lights and change the wheels or their size, things like that. Within 15 minutes after we’ve designed the car, we could hop in and drive away. How many other environments allow that? That’s pretty powerful.”

“We want to make EDGE as capable and as vividly stimulating as the current game technologies,” Kaufman said, “but bring in the realism necessary to support Army training. That, to date, has never been done.”

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