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June 7, 2011:  The U.S. Army is spending nearly $60 million to build the DSTS (Dismounted Soldier Training System), an infantry combat simulator using the most realistic 3-D commercial game engine (CryEngine 3) available. A game engine is the basic computer code for a game. Add your own graphics and scenario information and you have a game. Most commercial games either built their own engine, or, more frequently, rent one from someone else. The CryEngine 3 was developed for Crysis, a first person shooter (FPS) wargame acknowledged as the most graphically stunning ever. Crysis 2 just came out, and it is even more visually striking than the original Crysis, that appeared four years ago.

The new DSTS will be unlike any earlier infantry simulator in that troops will be in the game, not just playing it. To do this, each participating soldier will be on a 3.22 meter square (10x10 foot) mat that will record the soldier's foot movements. This will enable (along with other sensors) the game to record the soldier's movement. Meanwhile, the soldier will be totally immersed in the game via tiny goggle displays. The small video screens inside the eyepieces mean that, when looking straight ahead, there will be a high-resolution display of what the soldiers should see. There will still be some peripheral vision to avoid moving off the mat or bumping into nearby soldiers. Earphones provide realistic audio. A hand held controller handles weapons and equipment. Running in place moves the soldier forward, and a turning move allows movement in any direction within the game's virtual world. Each soldier will have the equivalent of a high-end gaming laptop in their backpack, to drive the system. All soldiers in a training exercise will be networked, and use existing commercial software to enable them to coordinate their movements. Troops will be able to enter buildings, duck behind cover or hit the ground. If they are "hit", they will be disabled to varying degrees, or killed (and go off line, leaving only a virtual corpse behind for their fellow troops to see).

This sort of thing is actually part of a trend. Eleven years ago, noting that the troops spent a lot of time playing video games, the army hired video games developer Pandemic to create "Full Spectrum Warrior" (FSW). Compared to your usual video game, the military version of FSW seemed to drag along at times. It can take a minute or more for troops to do some things, like move to another position or use a smoke grenade (it takes nearly a minute for the smoke screen to form.) The player assumes the role of the squad leader, and uses the video game controller to intuitively give battlefield type commands to the two team leaders or, if need be, individual troops. The use of the game controller and the game software is pretty intuitive, allowing the player to handle a real time battlefield game without the game controls getting in the way.

The troops use the same drills and tactics taught to U.S. Army infantrymen today. The game is quite effective in showing users how well trained combat troops are supposed to move. One reason the army put over a million dollars into FSW is another program, begun in 2002, to improve the combat skills of non-combat troops. FSW appeared to be a painless way to expose these clerks, mechanics, cooks and office workers what they should do when under fire. There were scenarios in the game covering situations where non-combat troops have to fight. Many non-combat units are informally organized into squad sized units and often have machine-guns assigned as well. But unless the non-combat troops take the machine-guns and assault rifles out of the arms room regularly and practice, it does them little good to be armed.

 The initial batch of scenarios involved going after irregular type fighters in Middle Eastern locations. By using the XBox, the players got photo realistic graphics and equally realistic sound. The army worked closely with the developers to make sure that the game was extremely realistic. The game was eventually available free to anyone in the army (active and reserve). Ultimately, the military and commercial versions shipped on the same CD. That way, civilians could experience the more realistic, but less "fun" military version (which has strictly realistic ammo loads and time durations for battlefield procedures). The game will have online multiplayer capabilities. The artificial intelligence of the enemy force was pretty realistic and deadly. 

FSW was well received, and led to DSTS, which was made possible by advances in small displays (that, when placed in front of the eyes, and powered by Crysis class graphics, made you feel like you were inside the game), sensors and graphics hardware. The CryEngine 3 also allows accurate representation of vehicles, missiles, aircraft and all sorts of terrain. DSTS will also be used for mission planning and rehearsal, as well as training.

 


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