The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) this week launched a study that could lead to breakthroughs in creating the next-generation of avatars, robots and other human surrogates for military training.
The study is being carried out at the University of Central Florida (UCF), where a human surrogate will greet and interact with people passing through the lobby of the university’s Institute for Simulation and Training. The human surrogate will be controlled by a human operator in another location.
The “lobby greeter” study at UCF will last for several weeks. When it is over, researchers will use what they have learned to demonstrate the use of surrogates in more complex situations that require a greater amount of interaction.
The experiment is part of ONR’s Human Surrogate Interaction program, a three-year investigation into how humans interact with virtual (avatars), physical (animatronics), and other types of surrogates. Findings will help officials determine how best to use these surrogates in military training systems, such as the Infantry Immersion Trainer, a former tomato-packing plant that ONR and the Marine Corps transformed into a state-of-the-art urban training facility at Camp Pendleton, California.
The program underscores the commitment of the Marine Corps to training and education as described in the service’s Science and Technology Strategic Plan. Training and education also are at the heart of research to enhance warfighter performance, one of ONR’s key technology focus areas.
“Marine Corps training concepts continue to merge virtual and live components to create the most realistic, effective and affordable training for Marines,” said Dr. Peter Squire, ONR program officer. “The way people react to and interact with the different surrogates in this study is crucial to understanding how we can improve our military training systems.”
As part of this research ONR is supporting the development of a system called AMITIES (Avatar Mediated Interactive Training and Individualized Experience System)—a framework that enables actors to “inhabit” and control various types of surrogates. A combination of voice modulation, artificial intelligence, network protocols and human control opens up a world of training possibilities, researchers say.
With AMITIES, multiple surrogates can be controlled by a single human using a specialized handheld user interface and head-tracking software. The human controller can be anywhere, and can rapidly switch between characters and training sites as needed.
The technology helps reduce the cost and logistics burden of finding and hiring human actors to fill each individual role in training scenarios.
“If human role players are not available because of cost or other reasons, this research will help us understand the type of surrogate to replace them with so that the level of training is not diminished,” Squire said.
One example of a human surrogate is a humanoid robot. These types of surrogates can change facial appearance and behavior to represent people of different races, genders and personalities. During a recent demonstration, an actor used a robot with AMITIES to play the part of a local villager in Afghanistan seeking compensation for goats that had been killed. ONR’s technology has also been demonstrated in Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training scenarios, with a virtual surrogate taking on the characteristics of a victim or aggressor.
Experts will be on hand to discuss a range of ONR training technologies at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology EXPO in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4-5.