How the military and private tech contractors are training a new generation of soldiers

Waging war isn't about fun and games. Or is it? A visit to one of the world's biggest conventions for military training technology reveals that today's armed forces are taking cues from video games, theme parks, and Hollywood. Find out how the Pentagon is funding the future of new media at Orlando, Florida's I/ITSEC: the Defense Department's own Disney World.

In one corner of a football-field-sized convention floor crammed with display booths, representatives from VirTra Systems stand at the entranceway to their company's tent. Different videotaped military and security training scenarios play inside, unfolding within a virtual environment formed by a series of interactive projections. A rep walks to the center of the near-circle of giant video images, clutching a realistic-looking laser pistol, as one of the narratives begins: An Al Qaeda terrorist has taken an American engineer hostage, and the rep needs to shoot the bearded baddie down. The rep's laser pistol fires loudly, but misses the mark, hitting instead a pack of explosives strapped to the terrorist's chest. The walls glow with a virtual blast—the mechanized floor, in fact, vibrates like an enormous video game controller—and the scenario ends; the whole event has taken less than two and a half seconds. The other rep turns to the conventioneers clustered around the tent's opening. "This is what our military and law enforcement have to deal with on a daily basis," he says.

"Now, you can also use this to enhance the experience," the VirTra rep continues, fastening a thick, black device around his waist. The "threat-fire belt," he explains, issues an electric shock to the trainee if he or she is hit by the imaginary bullet of a virtual assailant, who might appear anywhere on the semicircular screen. "If you get hit in the back, trust me, you'll remember it. This one will bring you to your knees. The whole idea is to fight through the pain, and keep on going, just the way that you've been trained."

Make way for Tomorrowland: The training camps of the future
Photograph by Jennifer Cortner
Make way for Tomorrowland: The training camps of the future

VirTra was one of hundreds of private contractors and military agencies showing off the latest in media-based training systems last December at I/ITSEC, the cumbersomely named annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. I/ITSEC exists to bring together the different military branches, related government agencies, private contractors, and academia to showcase new and future developments in simulation-based training—military lingo for the technology-enhanced, serious-minded make-believe that provides the cornerstone of modern preparation for battle. When I/ITSEC began three decades ago, simulation training meant mechanical airplane cockpit mock-ups with blinking electronic lights, or live playacted war games of the Red vs. Blue variety. Such antique practices have now merged with the cutting edge of science and entertainment. Today, attendees are more likely to engage with something along the lines of VirTra's immersive virtual theater: the souped-up, grown-up cousins of video games, tailor-made to teach the new-media generation how to fight America's war on terror.

At first glance, the convention floor seems like a dotcom-era throwback. Elaborately decorated walk-through displays pack the enormous hall, each stuffed with monitors, flyers, and logo-printed giveaway trinkets. Some bear familiar names—Saab, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics. Soundtracks to corporate videos bleed into one another, punctuated by newscaster-cool voice-overs, corny synths, and adrenaline-pumping guitar riffs. Many representatives wear matching team outfits: One group mingles in white lab coats, another in Red Sox jerseys. A smiling female booth staffer offers ice cream in exchange for dropping a business card in a fishbowl, as a polo-shirted man silently creeps by on a Segway scooter.

But this is 2004, not 2000, so the business at hand is fighting war and defending the homeland. Suits are as plentiful as desert camo; some displays are swathed in army green netting. Near the floor's entrance, a giant plasma screen shows a pilot's-eye view of a bombing run over a computer-generated desert landscape, where digital explosions blossom to the tune of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." A company called Dynamic Animation Systems shows off its urban-combat-themed marksmanship trainer prototype in six shooting-gallery-style stalls equipped with video projectors. In each stall, men in suits or uniforms pick up laser rifles and blast away at CGI'd insurgents, who jump out from behind cars and rubble in a digital mock-up of an Iraqi city, complete with fading posters of Saddam Hussein on the sides of buildings. To the casual observer, the trainer seems indistinguishable from the latest Iraq-themed game for PlayStation or Xbox. A woman in jeans and a pink shirt grabs a gun and starts picking off hooded villains with ruthless precision. "Oh man, she is cold!" laughs a soldier standing behind her. A few paces away, a grinning man who could be Dick Cheney's stunt double—fiftyish, balding, dark-blue suit and tie—perches atop a mock armored vehicle inside another dome of video projections, machine-gunning down computer-generated terrorists as the barren, sand-colored landscape rolls around him. Smoke pours from his mounted gun, and real metal shells fall onto the carpeted floor.

To a blue-state civilian outsider, the scene at first seems surreal—or, perhaps, all too real: the ultimate convergence of digital entertainment and the war on terror, a vision worthy of Paul Verhoeven, with blockbuster production budgets to match. As much as 16 percent of the current U.S. defense spending goes toward training, and the dollar amount has escalated sharply since 9-11. In 2000, about $3 billion was spent by the Department of Defense on the MS&T (modeling, simulation, and training) sector; now the figure is closer to $6 billion, thanks to increased demand from both domestic security and conflicts abroad. According to Orlando's National Center for Simulation, a nonprofit industry organization, over $1 billion is spent in Florida alone.

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