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Army-Sponsored Institute Develops Virtual Reality Counterinsurgency Training Games

By Matthew Harwood

A U.S. Army-financed research institute, combining the skills of Hollywood and the video game world, is helping to train soldiers in winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond by developing virtual reality games that blur gaming and real life.

Based in Los Angeles' Marina del Rey, the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is on the cutting edge of creating immersive, interactive training environments— so much so that it developed the technology used in James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar to give the movie's characters real-life human expressions and movements.

Led by Executive Director Randal Hill Jr. and Director of Technology Bill Swartout, the institute teams "computer scientists, graphics visionaries, artificial-intelligence wizards, social-science experts, digital game makers and Hollywood storytellers who are taking the notion of virtual reality to a new level of fidelity, creating immersive environments that, among other things, help America’s soldiers experience the culture of Iraq and Afghanistan before they go and treat them for post-traumatic stress when they return," writes John Mecklin, the editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune magazine.

(For more on ways the U.S. military is trying to leverage new expertise in its counterinsurgency campaigns, see "U.S. Military Should Rely on Social Science More to Fight Jihadism, Anthropologist Argues.")

Using the power of artificial-intelligence algorthims in 2007, ICT created a virtual reality officer named Sgt. Star, once only a static graphic on GoArmy.com, that can interact with potential Army recruits and answer verbal questions directed at him. The Army, as explained in the video below, uses Sgt. Star to talk to recruits about Army life and its career opportunities.

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