One of the world's top special effects houses is teaming up with one of the world's biggest defense contractors to create a fully immersive virtual reality training world for SWAT teams and other law enforcement types. Motion Reality and Raytheon's newly released civilian VIRTSIM system is a 360 degree, physically immersive, real-time, multiplayer three dimensional simulator for tense police situations that adheres to the laws of physics. When police officers run, their avatars run. When police officers duck, their avatars duck. And when their avatars are shot, the police officers feel pain.
VIRTSIM was first developed for military use during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2012, Raytheon, who handles sales and marketing for the system, began a heavy push to sell licenses to domestic law enforcement. The full system includes full-body sensors for participants, visors, virtual weapons, infrastructure such as a server and routers, and a drag-and-drop scenario creator that somewhat recalls The Sims. Although VIRTSIM ships with premade scenarios with integrated in-game AI characters, police departments and law enforcement agencies can create their own virtual worlds and virtual training grounds with no prior coding, script or SDK experience.
Although virtual worlds have been marketed to civilian law enforcement for training exercises for quite some time, Raytheon and Motion Reality's product is one of the most realistic. Avatars are pegged to the height and weight of players; a larger cop's avatar runs and jumps more slowly than a smaller cop's. Taller cops have to look out for physical obstacles. Participants also feel pain when injured; two muscle stimulators attached to the triceps administer electric shocks when a user is "shot." Users can continue to play with non-fatal injuries, but head or chest shots immediately remove them from the training exercise. The electric shock is comparable to one encountered in physical therapy, says Raytheon's Ellen Houlihan.
Motion Reality developed motion-capture technology used for CGI characters in films such as Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Raytheon is a massive military contractor who aggressively upgraded their public safety marketing in 2012. Raytheon held a demo for Texas law enforcement in June where users spent four hour blocs of time running through volatile situations in virtual worlds. Virtual situations were engineered where law enforcement, wearing visors and body gear and carrying virtual arms, were immersed in volatile situations inside fast food restaurants and a single-family home. Law enforcement scenarios are tailored mostly to indoor situations, rather than the military's preference for outdoor simulations, according to Houlihan.
The setup used by Raytheon at the law enforcement demonstration had teams of up to 13 participants training in a 50' by 100' space the approximate size of a basketball court. After users suited up and grabbed their virtual weapons, their motion was tracked via sensors and an overhead camera system. Houlihan noted a "giggle factor" for participants in early minutes of the exercise, when they laughed due to the disorientation of seeing their teammates as fully controllable digital avatars. Participants in the exercises were especially interested in scenarios involving hallways, confined spaces, apartments, room searches, and danger spots—all of which are hard to replicate in conventional training spaces due to ballistics and construction concerns.
Motion Reality and Raytheon's current system allows for participants in different installations to be networked together. This allows for innovations such as virtual sniper overwatches and multi-floor environments. VIRTSIM ships with several prepackaged scenarios, and a scenario generator is included that uses drag-and-drop technology to build custom scenarios based on immediate needs.
Although VIRTSIM isn't perfect—it's extremely hard to, for instance, reproduce realistic recoil or the random noise chaos of many crisis situations—it does create a realistic training that takes cutting-edge gaming and cinema technologies into the law enforcement sphere. Raytheon's talking point when marketing to civilian law enforcement is VIRTSIM's low price point over the long term: Although it does require a significant initial outlay, the simulator is cheaper over the long term than constantly retooling conventional training areas and real-life mock scenarios. It also gives police and emergency teams enhanced ability to train for a variety of situations that are financially difficult in real life.
Last but not least, Motion Reality and Raytheon get a little bonus: Just as VIRTSIM is a military technology that was leveraged for the civilian law enforcement market, it can just as easily be altered for recreational use. A few years down the line, price points for VIRTSIM's technology are likely to drop into a range where virtual reality, full-field war zone games are a real possibility. Super-cyber paintball, anyone?
[Images, video: Courtesy Raytheon]