"So," the smiling publicist asked cheerily, "do you want to get blown up, or not?"
Not a question I routinely get asked when reporting stories. But nothing about my visit to this non-descript office park about 40 miles north of Los Angeles could be described as routine. Here, in the shadow of the dozen or so roller coasters of Six Flags Magic Mountain, a team of more than a dozen Hollywood creatives and theme park engineers are debuting their latest creation. Except this team is working not for the hottest Hollywood studio but for the Department of Defense. And this is no blockbuster film. It's a simulated IED attack.
The IED—an improvised explosive device—is the deadly centerpiece of the most common attack against U.S. soldiers: the roadside ambush. A system that could accurately train soldiers to anticipate what that attack might feel like could save a lot of lives. "These attacks are happening every single day in places like Afghanistan," said the experience's director Randal Kleiser, who sat to my left as I filled out my paperwork. Like many of the project's collaborators, his resume was impressive: He directed the 3D Disney ride Honey I Shrunk the Audience as well as the most successful musical of all time, Grease. "If they know what to expect, they can be better prepared." And in a few hours, I'd be able to experience it, too. I made an X under 'Detonate.'
RL Leaders' Richard Lindheim introduces the IEDBD
As I waited to be called up for my mission, I read from the bios of the team brought together on this project through RL Leaders. Sony, Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox...and Paramount, where the "L" in Rogers Lindheim Leaders, Richard Lindheim, had been executive vice president of Paramount Television Group. When he began his career, Lindheim told me, there were two things he never saw himself doing: Working for the military and getting involved in politics. But he loved technology, as well as finding new uses for it, so when the Department of Defense first approached Paramount in 1999, he leapt at the opportunity to find new ways for the entertainment industry to train soldiers. He established the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California as the first research-based collaboration between the military and Hollywood.
Training today's soldier requires something more like a video game or a Hollywood blockbuster, says Rick Travis, a military trainer from the National Training Center. The average soldier is 23 years old and has a bachelor's degree—they've grown up with video games, and are no strangers to realistic on-screen graphics. What RL Leaders' IED Battle Drill (IEDBD for short) represents is a successful collaboration between two industries that owe a lot to each other. Hollywood can thank military endeavors like NASA for plenty of its technologies, including image recognition software and motion control systems for cameras, which all originated in military applications. In turn, the entertainment industry often creates visionary technologies—like the Star Trek Holodeck—that inspire military advances.
At first, Lindheim's team built computer graphics-heavy simulators—often executing ideas borrowed directly from films themselves. "They'd say, can you build something like the Holodeck from Star Trek?" Lindheim remembers (he also worked on the original series). But after 9/11, the Defense Department wanted products. "Academics don't make products," says Lindheim. He founded his own development company, RL Leaders, mostly out of his own curiosity about the film industries' capabilities (the lucrative DoD contracts likely added some incentive as well). "I wanted to know if you could use storytelling and character development to teach decision making."
When confronted with the challenge of recreating an IED event, it seemed a perfect match for the RL Leaders' team. "The problem is not just when you're hit, but what happens afterwards," says Lindheim. "If troops are disoriented and taken off-guard, they can be compromised." Using cinematic-quality production as well as the immersive experience of theme park rides, the team could better achieve the two goals outlined for them by their military advisers: 1) creating a sense of heighten situational awareness and 2) delivering as close to an actual IED event to soldiers as possible before they experience it for real.
Using real-life stories from soldiers who had experienced IED attacks, the writers drafted scripts for several different scenarios, which were storyboarded, shot and produced just like a studio film. The result is a high-production-value immersive digital videogame— in which every decision the soldiers make affects what happens next; their trainers can insert different scenarios on the fly, depending on soldiers' responses.
After donning helmets, we're given a safety briefing by military trainers
As my four-person team steps into the warehouse that houses the IEDBD, I get my first glimpse of the system, which is, amazingly, completely portable. The IEDBD can be contained in a full-size tractor trailer; once on site it takes about 18 hours to assemble. Picture a trailer split open at the middle and intersected by a massive 270-degree theatrical-quality screen, it looks like a cross between a Transformer and a Britney Spears stage show. At the center of the curved screen, a 6,000-pound stripped-down Humvee is locked into a hydraulic system that allows it to be tossed like a Tonka truck. We're briefed on safety, and don our helmets and a neck brace (those with sensitive ears are offered protection from the loud clap of the inevitable explosion). When it's our turn to climb into the decommissioned Humvee (yes, there are actual bullet holes in the armor), I take the driver's seat, strap in, push down the massive door locking device with all my weight and give a thumbs up.
The stunning high-def scenery, which looks completely realistic from behind the wheel of the vehicle
The lights dim and suddenly we're traveling with a 30-vehicle convoy through Kandahar province, Afghanistan (the heaps of boulders with snow-capped mountains in the distance were shot in Lone Pine, about 200 miles to the north, and deemed dead-ringers by soldiers). Using the custom-built Supreme Vision 360, a cluster of cameras that uses a cylinder of mirrors to project in seamless 270-degree super-high-definition, the panorama is almost too believable. A 7.1 sound system feeds realistic audio of our fellow vehicles squawking over the radio, but we can also experience how freaking loud our own vehicle is as it rattles down the dirt road, compounded by the vibrations created by the truck itself as the hydraulics recreate every bump in the road. We rise over a steep ridge and the video is so convincing my stomach lurches like I'm on Six Flags' Viper coaster.
A man riding a motorcycle turns out to be harmless...or did he warn the others about our presence?
When a figure appears on the horizon I realize I'm hyperalert, gripping the steering wheel. A man on a motorcycle sails by innocuously and I let out a breath. We roll to the top of another ridge where I remember to scan the road, doing the safety checks I'd been told are standard procedure. Suddenly we grind to a halt. "Traffic," I joke. But further down the road there appears to be some debris—maybe trash, but we don't want to find out—so our vehicle executes a two point turn and heads back in the other direction. Rolling back up the hill, almost immediately we know we've made a mistake. Gun fire rattles into the vehicle from the left side (it's actually bird shot) and as my head whips to the side, we spot snipers with machine guns leaping over the rocks.
CRACK! Two pounds of TNT ignited by a propane charge explode somewhere by my left foot and the Humvee careens wildly to the right, rocking back and forth until it settles at an odd angle. Acrid smoke pours into the space between the vehicle and the screen as a second blast jolts us back into our starting position. My ears are muffled and ringing, an effect I later learn was induced by clever sound editing. One saying loops in my mind: "I never saw it coming."
We all climb out of the vehicle, where the military trainers help us back onto solid ground and ask us what we thought. "It was awesome!" I exclaim. But my knees are a little wavery. The kicker? The force we experienced was only 2.5 Gs. The max that can be delivered? 8 Gs.
And that's where the IEDBD makes a real difference for the trainers: In their ability to deliver feedback immediately. Before, when drills like this were run with actors and slow-motion simulated situations, it would take hours of notetaking and corroboration to evaluate performance and deliver feedback. Now, trainers can have a video of the entire experience—in real time—to review with the team in a few minutes.
The Humvee post-blast, with smoke still hanging in the air
In a few weeks, once a strategy guide and evaluation program are completed, this IEDBD will be sent to Fort Eustis, an Army transportation center in Virginia, where it will begin training soldiers en route to the Middle East. To Lindheim, that moment will also represent a new chapter for his own industry. "We all used to say we make mudpies," says Lindheim of his colleagues in the business. "Entertainment has value but it doesn't have consequence. This has consequence." His white eyebrows furrow. "If we can use what we've learned in this industry to save some lives, then we've really accomplished something."