Edwin_Forbes_Pickett's_ChargeA couple of weeks ago I posted an article about why I believe that virtual reality (VR) will change the way that our military prepares for war, which you can read here. The main takeaway is that, because the military has already determined that pre-deployment immersion training is beneficial to deploying Marines and Soldiers and continues to invest in updates to immersion training, VR is a natural extension of that desired capability. While my previous article was focused on the larger view of the existing technology and why I believe that the current engineering obstacles that are preventing its use will be overcome in time, it was intentionally broad in scope. To take the role of VR from big picture benefits to something more focused on small units and individual Marines and Soldiers, here are three ways that I see VR being used in the future.

1. Preparing for a Specific Location

One of the reasons why the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT) continues to be so impactful is because it lets Marines who might have never been deployed better understand the environment that they would soon be seeing, smelling and hearing upon deployment. It would help reduce the uncertainty a Marine would experience upon landing in country because it would at least look, smell and sound a little more familiar than it would have without that experience. The limitation of the IIT is that, as a physical facility, making modifications to it can be difficult, so it reflected a more generic looking Afghan, Iraqi, or, now third world village.

In this example, while a generic village is better than no village at all, how much better of a capability could be attained if a Marine wearing a VR headset could literally walk the streets of the specific city they are about to deploy to. By spending time immersing themselves in that specific neighborhood, a deployed warrior could learn the layout of the city, learn what buildings are there, learn the shortest routes or where the widest roads are, all from the safety of their headset and without the risk of getting shot at.

If you aren’t sure how much of an impact this would have, think about the last time you were driving in a city that you had never been to before. The first few times you went out, you probably had your phone out and let Google Maps help you navigate with turn-by-turn directions. Would you have known where to go if your phone died? If you were spun around a few times, would you be able to immediately orient to your surroundings to know where you were? I’d argue that it isn’t likely. Just as your understanding of the layout of a city became better and more natural with time, unit leaders, the point person on a patrol and drivers about to deploy need to spend the time to master the layout of the specific place they are heading before they are in harms way.

As Google continues to improve their ability to offer a “street view” of cities here at home, they are also improving their ability to capture areas where cars can’t go. In Colorado, Google has created a man-portable version of their 360-degree camera so that people can explore the trails that crisscross the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. While carrying this camera around might not be at the top of the priority list for a Marine on patrol at the early stages of their deployment, if you know that a unit will be replacing you in the future, the use of the long-range cameras we have in our bases overseas can begin collecting the images needed for Google’s software to stitch together a realistic view of the area, so those units who are about to deploy can begin to reduce their uncertainty and shorten their learning curve when arriving in country.

2. Preparing for Specific Missions and Conducting Rehearsals

For any leader who has had to draw their plans for an operation in the sand, use rocks to represent the various elements of a unit and hoped that the verbal description of distances were understood by everyone while knowing that not everyone listening to the brief had the same imagery of the operation in their head, VR can be a game changer.

Imagine that you are tasked to set up a vehicle checkpoint on a certain road. Instead of talking about where the various obstacles would be set up, where security should be established or what areas you are concerned about being attacked from, imagine if everyone about to conduct the operation could see exactly where all of the parts to the plan were going to go? As a leader, you can make adjustments and corrections to the plan before you leave the security of your base because you will be able to see how everything comes together. Being able to virtually rehearse the mission before you leave your base means that you don’t have to wait and make adjustments to foreseeable problems.

How different would it be if the person who was coordinating the operation from the command post was able to view your virtual rehearsal of the mission and knew what concerns you had because they could actually see it through their VR headset. Think of how empowering that could be, as they would be able to better coordinated supporting assets like aerial reconnaissance or fire support by having a better understanding of what was happening on the ground. While adjusting to changing conditions is a natural part of any military operation, being able to minimize that uncertainty before beginning one provides a great advantage.

3. Learning from History in Both Recent and Historical Wars

If you are a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer, I’m willing to bet that you have been in classes where you have looked at and analyzed historical attacks. It might have been through a tactical decision game (TDG) or discussing a book about a previous war, but chances are that you have often looked to the past to learn lessons for the future. But despite the incredible benefits that these opportunities provide, learning from history isn’t always a flawless pursuit.

When you read a book about a battle, the reader is left to create a view in their head about what that battle looked like. From the shape of the terrain to spatial distances between forces down to the uniforms that soldiers were wearing and the types of weapons they were firing, the individual reader creates the mental imagery of the event. Conceptually re-creating that scene is something that is left to the creativity of the individual reader and, even with maps provided, how far one kilometer looks on a topographical map isn’t easy to translate into what you would be seeing if you are standing on the ground.

While this may seem like a minor problem, it isn’t. Since the decisions that a historical figure made during a battle were determined by their perception of the event, the more variance that exists between how different students believe a battle “looked,” the harder it becomes to use history to teach decision making. This isn’t a new challenge and it is why I was advised as a Marine to do battlefield tours whenever I could, that only reduces the uncertainty about the terrain (and doesn’t help in the areas converted to commercial centers)[i], but does not necessarily reduce the uncertainty about the human component to these historical studies. What did the 12,500 men advancing over open terrain during Pickett’s Charge actually look like? I am sure that the picture I have in my head, which is probably influenced by Hollywood, is different than what you see in your head.

With a virtual reality headset, a student of war and history could place themselves in the middle of the battle. They could switch perspectives to see how the scene looked from the different players involved in the fight, watch it unfold at a real-time pace, and have a 360-degree view of everything that was happening. With recent improvements in computer generated imagery (CGI) and 3-D computer graphics, re-enactments of this magnitude can become incredibly lifelike, realistic and accurate, down to the minutest details. Would that enhanced visual imagery of the event improve the quality of the lessons being taught? Of course it would.

These three applications of virtual reality for our deploying Marines and Soldiers are not ready to be the new training reality right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future. The truth is that we can always be doing more to improve how we prepare our nation’s protectors before they deploy, especially those heading overseas for the first time. If virtual reality can expand the benefits of immersion training, then we should be preparing to make the most use of both the current and future iterations of this technology.

If you can think of other ways that the military can use virtual reality to prepare for war, get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter to let us know.


[i] If you were to do a tour of an ancient battle, you might not be able to see the actual ground anymore. As author John English talks about in On Infantry, the location used by the Germans to build up their 10th Panzer Division before the June 1940 at Amiens bridgehead is now the home of a shopping mall.


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