Can Tinseltown's War Games Train G.I. Joe?

The U.S. military is getting help from Hollywood pros and computer-game designers in creating virtual combat simulators

The stupefying special effects of movies such as The Matrix gave tens of millions of moviegoers a cinematic jolt. Now, the military hopes to tap into these effects and the stories Hollywood weaves around them to create the ultimate in war games. In November, the U.S. Army signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Institute of Creative Technology (ICT) at the University of Southern California to build cutting-edge combat simulations.

Call it the ultimate suspension of disbelief. With the deal, the military hopes to tap into the "power of entertainment" in its training -- using not only computer wizardry but also compelling human stories with unique characters similar to Hollywood dramas, says Jim Blake, senior scientist at the Army Simulation, Training & Instrumentation Command in Orlando which oversees the project.

Blake and the rest of the brass believe such living and breathing scenarios will better simulate the true emotional feel of combat and enable better decisionmaking when bullets really do fly. "The entertainment industry can help us tell a story, weaving the elements into a scenario that produces emotional involvement, participation, and learning," Blake says.


  But can a bunch of Tinseltown twinkies teach G.I. Joe how to drive a tank or do a door-to-door search in an urban war zone? Well, that's the idea. And ICT has already enlisted an A-Team of Hollywood directors, writers, and special-effects experts who have worked on such films as Apollo 13 and Star Wars. Onboard at ICT are Grease director Randal Kleiser; Andre Bormanis, chief science adviser for some of the Star Trek TV spin-offs; and Star Wars vehicle designer Ron Cobb. ICT has also added John Milius, screenwriter of Clear and Present Danger and Apocalypse Now, as a consultant. "What simulations create are those environments that allow you to learn with consequences but no damage. Nobody gets killed, and that is one of the great values. You can do things that don't exist in the real world," says ICT Executive Director Richard Lindheim.

Use of high-tech combat simulation is nothing new to the military. The U.S. Marines have used a modified version of the popular multiplayer shoot-'em-up computer game Doom to train their troops for firefights. And military pilots regularly spend long hours on simulators to hone their skills in an environment where crashing has no consequences. More recently, the military has contracted with Sony to adapt the PlayStation2 game console for virtual training. And Paramount Pictures has signed a deal to deliver simulation training that develops the problem-solving skills of recruits over the Internet.

But the ICT effort for the Army will bring together a unique combination of university computer scientists and movie-industry bigwigs in a grand experiment. The goal is to perfect virtual-reality training by melding artificial intelligence, smells, and sounds with the special effects developed for movies. But unlike standard video games or linear feature films, participants will make complex decisions with seemingly real consequences in a totally immersive environment. "We are working with the military to do out-of-the-box thinking," says Michael Murguia of computer-game designer New Pencil. "The ultimate goal is to create a new prototype game in real-time 3-D."


  Not surprisingly, the biggest technological challenge faced by ICT is developing credible artificial intelligence and "virtual humans that emit emotion," says Lindheim. Of course, there will be spectacular visual wizardry, as well. Specifically, ICT is working on simulating a 360-degree view from a vehicle and holographically placing synthetic objects in a real environment.

Hollywood insiders hope the project could produce some breakthrough technologies with civilian applications in the movie and graphics businesses. To that end, ICT has contracted with graphics and games designer 3D Pipeline to develop improved compression software that could be used to more easily push fat graphical streams of data over the Internet. And Ultimat, which did special-effects work on Titanic, has been assigned to come up with new graphic technologies. Says Blake: "The military would like to see a training experience achieve the highest possible level of fidelity." If the success of Titanic is any indicator, Blake could have a big hit with the troops on his hands. It sure beats boot camp.

By Dennis Blank in Orlando

Edited by Alex Salkever

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