Sgt. Star, Robotic Recruiter
(Pentagon and Hollywood team up to capture imaginations, recruit and train imperialism’s next generation for foreign conquests, occupations, and war crimes.)
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 .
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 uses Sgt. Star to talk to recruits about Army life and its career opportunities .
But ICT wants to take the Sgt. Star concept to new heights of immersive, interactive possibilities. Currently, Sgt Star has a knowledge base of 8,500 responses to questions asked by recruits. Often, though, Sgt. Star cannot answer questions posed by recruits because the answers aren’t in his knowledge base, so he deflects them with a humorous aside. (In the video above, Sgt. Star makes multiple references to how handsome he is.)
In new simulations, ICT is working on ways to ensure trainees stay on track within the simulation and not diverge too widely from the simulation’s narrative. Take for instance the virtual gaming simulation “Gunslinger,” where the trainee, a “U.S. Ranger,” enters a town terrorized by a bandit. In one part of the story, the U.S. ranger enters the town’s bar to ask the bartender questions. Often times, trainees took their guns from their holsters and pointed it at the bartender’s head to make him talk, short-circuiting the game in the process.
Kim LeMasters, creative director for the institute and a former executive at ABC, explained how ICT tweaked the simulation to overcome that narrative breakdown.
Eventually, he says, the team involved with “Gunslinger” decided that to keep a human participant in the simulation, the virtual humans needed to raise the narrative tension in a way that limited options. So the virtual humans were programmed to display intense fear, immediately launching into an explanation of the bandit’s evil-doing in the town and creating a “pressurized situation” that would freeze human participants — at least for a time.
In another research prototype ICT’s working on, trainees negotiate with two Iraqis, a doctor and a community elder, to move the city’s clinic closer to the American military base. The virtual characters in this simulation, however, are even more advanced, interacting with each other and displaying emotions like fear over the possibility that their clinic could get attacked if seen as too cozy with U.S. forces.
While Mecklin acknowledges that using Hollywood and the video game world’s vast and powerful creative energies to help the military will provoke criticism, he doesn’t believe it should because soldiers don’t create policy.
“War should be vigorously debated beforehand and avoided when possible,” writes Mecklin, “but once the country’s leaders decide — rightly or wrongly — to send Americans into battle, I want them to have access to every possible technological advantage, and to be as well trained as they can possibly be in the use of all available weaponry, including that most effective of weapons, the word.”
Published on Security Management (http://www.securitymanagement.com)