​How VR is training the perfect soldier

From sniper to tank drivers, virtual reality is changing the way we prepare for war
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By the time you arrive at the scene, the soldier's blood pressure has dropped perilously low. His pulse is an arrhythmic beat, barely registering on the tips of your fingers.

His foot, meanwhile, is long gone. And the first casualty in an explosion that has left nothing but a splay of splintered bones and some pulpy flesh below the hem of the man's trouser leg.

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You may not be able to smell the aftermath of the bomb, but, through the virtual reality headset, you can certainly see its awful effects

The thought that none of this is real, that you're only in the jaggedy unreality of a video game never quite leaves you. But it's a thought nevertheless diminished in the context of the vivid horror of the scene.

You may not be able to smell the aftermath of the bomb, but, through the virtual reality headset, you can certainly see its awful effects. Your sense of fear is only heightened by the thought that the surrounding hills might harbour an enemy sniper, still and watchful as you fumble with a tourniquet.

Plextek, an electronics design consultancy in the UK has been making training simulations for the British government's Ministry of Defence since the late 1980s. The company specialises in building training programmes for army medics.

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

Traditionally, they would construct hulking cabins in which new recruits could try out, in a simulated environment, the classroom theory of how to, for example, bandage a wound while under enemy fire, or how to inject transexamic acid to prevent a patient from haemorrhaging when the air is filled with smoke. Such environments would cost, according to Collette Johnson, Plextek's Medical Business Development Manager, "millions of pounds" to build. The rise of virtual reality technology, however, is allowing for a cheaper, more flexible solution, containing the horror to the visor of a headset.

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"When the Oculus Rift arrived at the office we immediately saw an opportunity," she says. "It was user-friendly, compact and designed to be used by consumers." It was also, thanks to the development tool Unity, which comes with a store filled with ready-to-use 3D models including tanks, guns, huts and soldiers, relatively cheap and easy to develop for.

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

A simple training VR simulation would cost, as Johnson puts it, "in the low tens of thousands," a snip of the price of the training cabin. Plextek showed the technology to the British Ministry of Defence. "They were wowed by its flexibility," says Johnson. "Even though the image quality in the very first development kit wasn't 100% there was enough clarity there to believe that it could be used for training."

Video games and the military

The US Marine Corp famously used a modified version of Doom II to teach new recruits.

The relationship between games and the military is long held and tight knit. In the mid-1980s the US Army modified the Atari tank battle game Battlezone to more closely mimic the gunner controls of a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency approached many mainstream game developers around that time petitioning them to create video games that could be used to train soldiers (Chuck Benton, creator of the seminal racing game, B.C. Quest for Tyres, was an early recruit). Later, the US Marine Corp famously used a modified version of Doom II to teach new recruits. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Eisiminger, then team leader of the Modeling and Simulation Office, told Wired at the time: "We were tasked with looking at commercial off-the-shelf computer games that might teach an appreciation for the art and science of war."

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

The enormously popular America's Army, a freely available PC game made available in 2002, doubles as both a recruitment and training tool. In the year of its launch, Michael R. Macedonia, senior scientist for the U.S. Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), said that, in the modern era, recruits can "expect to encounter computer games throughout their military training".

The arrival of virtual reality appears to have further strengthened the relationship between military training and games. "Typically the recruits coming through our training programme are between the age of 16 and 24," says Johnson.

"People of that age and demographic are used to playing video games and the interactions they require. It's an appealing way of learning." Virtual simulations also allow people's performance to be carefully monitored and tracked, like how Call of Duty records the accuracy of every bullet fired in a competitive match. "We are able to play the training back so people could look at how they performed in extreme detail. It's become a highly effective and low cost training tool."

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

Plextek isn't the only military contractor experimenting with virtual reality. In South Korea, DoDAAM, the creator of an automated gun turret, has a suite of different VR programmes. In one, the user climbs into a harness that is suspended from the ceiling, before pulling on an Oculus Rift. The screen simulates the effect of flying a parachute. Players must guide themselves to a landing strip by tugging on two cords to steer, while an industrial fan blows air in their face to simulate the feeling of wind on one's face.

In South Korea, DoDAAM, the creator of an automated gun turret, has a suite of different VR programmes

Another is designed to train snipers and their spotters. The sniper lies down inside a giant domed environment, onto which a city scene is projected. The spotter uses an Oculus headset like a pair of binoculars, holding the VR headset up to their eyes to zoom in on the scene, in order to call out targets to their partner. In 2013 a group of Canadian soldiers tested a group VR training simulation, where each participant wore a headset and was transported into a battlefield scenario.

Today both US and British armies both use Xbox controllers as an interface to control drones in combat. Despite this, the team at Plextek wanted to get away from commercial video game controllers for their simulation. "We didn't want PlayStation or Xbox controllers because people are very used to those controls, so it can feel instinctively game-like," says Johnson.

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

Instead the development team opted for the Razer Hydra, a dual-handed control scheme that allows for more freedom of movement, closer resembling the experience of working on a body in the field. It is, Johnson says, only a temporary solution. As Microsoft develops technology such as Handpose, which allows users to interact with a computer via gestures, pinches and waves, Plextek believes the simulations will become ever closer to reality. "As we try to bring more complex actions into the simulation we'll need a finer degree of digit recognition," she says.

The approach also allows for a more honest kind of assessment. "In more traditional testing scenarios people can train themselves to behave in ways that are designed to pass the test, rather than to react in a natural way that has been learned and enforced through training," says Johnson. "But in virtual reality people tend to forget that they're in a training scenario. They switch off from the test, and behave in a more instinctual manner. It helps us to figure out where people will be best deployed within teams."

​How VR is training the perfect soldier

The medic training is just one of a number of military training virtual reality applications that Plextek is currently working on for the MOD and other military clients around the world (the fine details of which are currently covered by non-disclosure agreements). But Johnson is eager to point out the effectiveness of virtual reality in training police officers for high-speed pursuits, or even in preparing drivers for the sweat and strain of driving a tank.

While the usefulness of virtual reality as a means to train troops is clear, not everyone is so enamoured when the equation is reversed, and increasingly war-like simulations are used as pure entertainment. Supposedly realistic war game gives us only a partial view of life on the contemporary battlefield.

Game players might be intimately acquainted with the electronic whir of a $3,000 pair of night vision goggles, but through them we usually do not see the cruelty and horrors that war exacts on citizens caught up in its wake. As the academic Roger Stahl puts it in his book "Militainment Inc" video games are "increasingly the medium and metaphor by which we understand war."

Virtual reality war-games may be training our soldiers, but what does it mean when, in their bombast and glory, they also train our citizens?

If you still doubt the power of VR, check out this collection of people utterly freaking out while using Oculus Rift.


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Simon Parkin is a British author and journalist for magazines, newspapers and websites.

He specialises in gaming, culture and the arts.

Simon is a contributing writer for the New Yorker, a regular contributor to the Guardian's Long Read, a critic for The Observer. 

He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) and 

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