DARPA, Government Agencies Want Even More Realistic Virtual Reality Systems

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Soldiers of the 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East, take advantage of the Dismounted Soldier Training System. The DSTS provides a realistic virtual training platform programmable for any theater of operations while mitigating risk to Soldiers. (Photo Credit: Maj. Penny Zamora)Leaders from a wide range of government agencies spoke Sept. 26th in Rosslyn, Va., about the need for government investment in virtual and augmented reality technologies to advance training programs, help future patients and propel the industry into the mainstream.

The event, “The Future of Virtual Reality in Government,” hosted by TandemNSI, Eastern Foundry and the DC VR Meetup group featured speakers from DARPA, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, Army Research Laboratory, Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office, Booz Allen, and ByteCubed. The range of agencies offered a window into the many applications where virtual and augmented reality technologies can be applied.

Trung Tran, a DARPA program manager, said DARPA is focused on developing technologies 10 to 15 years down the road. The agency is specifically focused on developing virtual reality experiences for soldiers that do not require headsets or treadmills. He wants soldiers to “train like they fight” when using virtual reality systems.

Attendees at the virtual reality event test out new systems. (Eastern Foundry photo)

Attendees at the virtual reality event test out new VR systems. (Eastern Foundry photo)

DARPA officials are also hoping to develop virtual reality experiences advanced enough that military leaders can predict how troops will react in combat once bullets start flying.

“One of the things that we’re really concerned about is how a soldier would handle stress differently — that’s what [posttraumatic stress disorder] comes from,” Tran said during the event. “And so you don’t know until the bullets fly whether you run away like in Saving Private Ryan, or if you run into the battle. And it matters to the soldiers around you which one you do. And so part of the training is to evaluate the soldier for their effectiveness in combat.”

DARPA has invested more than $20 million into a three-room virtual reality system in Boston that is outfitted with sensors that react to troops in the room and dictate the environment and threats they are experiencing, Tran explained.

While DARPA might not be looking for advanced treadmills, but other agencies like the Army Research Laboratory want to develop these tools fur current virtual reality systems.

Justin Kondos, the co-founder of MOOVR, explained to the entrepreneurs at the event how he worked with the Army Research Laboratory to stand up his company and develop an omni-directional treadmill that can be integrated into virtual reality systems.

Army Research Laboratory engineers first started designing the omni-directional treadmill. Kondos and his company are now taking the patent and developing the prototype into a commercially viable product. It’s a process open to others as the Army Research Lab’s Technology Transfer Team tries to get more patents into the hands of entrepreneurs to build more products that could fulfill Army needs.

The conversation on VR and AR technologies was not limited to military applications. Plenty of discussion surrounded the potential opportunities for these technologies to revolutionize healthcare.

Sunbin Song, a research fellow with NIH, explained how academia is utilizing virtual reality technologies to collect new sources of data helping advance research. Virtual reality programs are also being used to aid in rehabilitation.

Sandra Marshall, a creative director for Booz Allen Digital Interactive, said her team is working on a program that will use virtual reality to help patients deal with pain. It’s a new approach that is meant to distract the patient and allow doctors to use less drugs.

Bryan Stephenson, a virtual reality developer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said NASA is using virtual and augmented reality programs for quite a few applications. He works on the NASA STEM Innovation Lab and the educational opportunities are boundless.

But others didn’t predict some of the maintenance and planning applications that virtual and augmented reality technologies provide. For example, NASA scientists use augmented reality programs to put themselves on the Mars surface to discuss research plans on the red planet. Engineers also use virtual and augmented reality program to provide maintenance on satellites.

Most importantly all of the government officials and developers agreed during the event that investment will continue to grow from agencies as they see the utility and the cost savings connected to virtual and augmented reality programs.

Tran said he expects to release several Small Business Innovation Research solicitations soon to fund these areas.

For more information about the event, FedScoop reporter Samantha Ehlinger was in attendance and wrote more about the DARPA programs here.

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