At the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, researchers specializing in the art and science of creating an immersive experience work with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to advance interactive simulation-based solutions for training Soldiers, teaching students, treating patients and more.
In 1999, the Army and USC joined together to establish the Institute for Creative Technologies, or ICT, as a University Affiliated Research Center, or UARC, that would combine the creative talents of the film and game industries with world-class university research in engineering, education and cinematic arts. The goal: to make simulations more effective through the study and development of emerging digital technologies and engaging narrative-driven experiences.
Today, transitioned prototypes from this forward-looking lab can be seen throughout the Army, including video games designed to prepare Soldiers in negotiations and stability operations, virtual role players programmed to provide practice in conducting sensitive interviews and virtual reality systems developed to enhance therapies for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
“The missions we ask our Warriors to perform put them in extreme circumstances. It is vital that we bring the best capabilities, based on the best science to them in training, on the battlefield, and as they reset for the next mission – or for the return to family,” said Dr. Laurel Allender, director of ARL Human Research and Engineering Directorate. “The research conducted at the ICT in collaboration with the Army is critical for building the strong scientific basis for simulation and training technologies and for the strategic application of those technologies to address the needs of Soldiers today and tomorrow.”
ICT scientists are leaders in the fields of artificial intelligence, graphics, virtual reality and computer and story-based learning. Los Angeles, a hub of high-tech and creative industries, inspires problem-solving research that draws from and contributes to the region’s innovation and provides powerful techniques and technologies to enhance Army training and education.
Current ICT and ARL collaborations expand how scientific breakthroughs can bolster Army efforts to empower, unburden and strengthen Soldiers. They include studying new uses for ICT-developed virtual humans, head-mounted displays and photo-real digital characters.
“We want to make sure that our innovations help save time, resources and lives,” said Dr. Randall W. Hill Jr., ICT executive director. “Our partnership with ARL provides an essential sounding board and test bed for making sure our investigations are relevant to current and future Army needs. Also, our status as a UARC allows us to serve as a strategic resource that can be easily tasked by DoD organizations seeking to solve problems with immersive experiences.”
ICT’s projects span basic and applied research and advanced prototype development. Discoveries made in the lab can be quickly leveraged for training. For example, ICT developed the Virtual Human Project, widely regarded as the most comprehensive effort devoted to creating computer-generated characters that look, behave and communicate like real people. Basic research leads to insights into how people relate to one another and to their virtual counterparts. Applied research leads to capabilities that improve software functionality, including sensing systems that can infer a user’s emotional state. Advanced prototype development requires experimenting and assessing training system value and impact. ICT virtual humans have deployed across the country, getting young people excited about science, providing information on Army careers and supporting veterans reintegrating to civilian life. Additional characters will be soon used in efforts to address depression, suicide and sexual harassment and assault prevention.
A new effort is also exploring how ICT’s natural language, nonverbal behavior recognition, cognition and emotion modeling research can help further ARL’s human-robot interaction research programs and enhance future connections between virtual human and HRI research.
“Human-robot teams are beginning to emerge across a range of potentially high-stakes situations including military operations, first-responders and caring for vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Jonathan Gratch, ICT associate director for virtual humans research. “We are excited to explore whether imbuing machines with some of the virtual human capabilities developed in our lab can help support the vision of improving performance in Soldier-robot teams.”
ICT’s Mixed Reality Lab, known as MxR, works with ARL HRED’s Simulation and Training Technology Center to investigate how ICT’s head-mounted displays can be incorporated to reduce the costs and increase realism in the Dismounted Soldier Training System.
Army-funded research from MxR contributed to the development of the Oculus Rift, a new virtual reality headset poised to transform the landscape of virtual reality entertainment and training with low-cost, high fidelity virtual reality displays. The MxR group’s work in this area is ongoing with the continued development of a suite of open-source immersive viewers.
ICT’s graphics lab works closely with the entertainment industry. Paul Debevec, the lab’s director, received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 2010 for the development of the Light Stage systems, which can relight and recreate a digital face down to level of individual pores and fine wrinkles. The Light Stage technologies have contributed to films like “Gravity” and “Avatar” and are also used to create realistic characters for ICT’s Army training prototypes, like the Emergent Leader Immersive Training Experience, which was installed at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Ga. A laptop version will soon be available at the Army’s MilGaming web portal.
“We are in an exciting time and place to develop and deliver engaging training,” Hill said. “I look forward to continued work with the Army and seeing what the next 15 years will bring.”