No exploration of simulations and game-based learning would be complete without including the groundbreaking work that the U.S. military does in this area. The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California is a graduate university attended by all the United States Armed Services, the Department of Homeland Security and numerous international allies. It specializes in education and research focused on national security issues. Within it is housed the The MOVES Institute (Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulations), a center for learning and development whose mission is “to enhance the operational effectiveness of our joint forces and our allies by providing superior training and analysis products, education, and exemplary research in the field of modeling and simulation.” We were thrilled to discuss their work with Commander Joseph A. Sullivan, USN, the Institute’s Director.
The MOVES Institute’s website gives a really interesting overview of the approach to the work that you do:
It sounds like an incredible place to work and to study. Can you tell us how you got involved with the Institute and a bit more about what you do there?
My background is pretty unusual. I’m one of four Permanent Military Professors (PMP) at NPS. My first 15 years in the Navy represents a fairly standard career path for a helicopter pilot. It included a two-year tour at NPS to get a masters in computer science. This is where I met and worked closely with MOVES faculty. When the PMP program opened with a chance to work with MOVES, I signed up immediately – for all the reasons you describe above. The faculty, staff and students make NPS an amazing and completely unique place to work.
Our capability – bridging the gap between operational and technical environments – really is the ‘secret’ of NPS in general and the MOVES program specifically. We treat this as a finite and very valuable resource. So a large part of the role of the Institute is to make sure our research agenda is properly focused. Our first key question is: Are we tackling the right problems? Primarily this involves communication with our Board of Advisors, sponsors, graduates and SMEs and potential academic or industry partners. Once the research focus is defined, the hard parts turns out to be creating and nurturing an ecology that supports effective interdisciplinary research. Quite a bit of the work of the Institute involves brokerage of research capabilities – working to discover how existing disciplines can be combined or evolved to improve the science and technology driving the development and application of modeling and simulation tools.
This is hard for two reasons. First academia does not inherently support interdisciplinary research. Academia tends to be highly stove-piped from an organizational and cultural perspective. Second – and much more difficult – interdisciplinary research requires a discovery process. It’s not always clear how various related disciplines can be combined to address what may be a fairly ill-defined problem. Discovering these opportunities takes diligence, patience, creativity and effective communication.
I can relate to the challenges of taking an interdisciplinary approach within an academic environment. But you've clearly managed to overcome those obstacles, particularly in the area of simulation and gaming. The MOVES Institute was the birthplace of the America’s Army game. Was that a huge milestone for the military’s use of game-based promotion and outreach?
Yes – a huge milestone in a number of ways. Before America’s Army, DoD was driving technical development in the simulation industry. America’s Army was a significant milestone for collaboration of the defense and entertainment industries and the first major opportunity for DoD to leverage simulation technology developed in the PC gaming community. In hindsight, it’s interesting that when the America’s Army project started faculty had to be very careful about using the word ‘game’ in proposals and briefs. Conventional wisdom among some senior DoD leadership was that ‘games’ were not appropriate for military outreach and training applications. We view part of our role as finding the next modeling, virtual environment and simulation technology or approach that may defy conventional wisdom, yet ultimately serve end users better.
Another significant outcome from America’s Army was the development of Delta3D – an open source game and simulation engine. After development of America’s Army and exploration of other potential game-based training applications it became clear that the business model supporting game creation, distribution and maintenance was not well-tuned to DoD needs. Delta3D was designed to address the business model, affordability and reusability issues, creation and validation process, and serve as a research test bed. Since inception, Delta3D has been involved in several key DoD projects and has greatly accelerated a number of other research initiatives here at MOVES.
It makes sense that you would ultimately craft a simulation platform that worked best for your environment. But what do you mean when you say “simulation”? Can you give us a few examples of the type of work developed and studied?
We try to bend the definition of simulation as much as we can to develop new capabilities for end users. One novel example comes to mind. Dr. Amela Sadagic heads up an ONR-sponsored effort with Sarnoff and UNC. The Behavioral Analysis and Synthesis for Intelligent Training (BASE-IT) project focuses on instrumentation of the Marine Corps’ urban training ranges, automating feedback and amplifying training value. Current after-action review (AAR) for live training relies on instructors reviewing 2D video feeds. BASE-IT takes a highly interdisciplinary approach to provide an annotated and extensible 3D reconstruction and replay capability. The main goal of BASE-IT combines computer vision and gaming technology to recreate the live event in a virtual environment for replay and manipulation. Reviewing an event from a global top-down perspective and zooming into a first-person view is a leap-ahead capability and provides a wealth of information currently not available to trainees and instructors. BASE-IT will also automate detection of key behavioral events such as when a Marine ‘flags’ (the barrel of his weapon crosses) another Marine. This frees the instructor to focus on events that humans are better at picking up – such as the interaction of related groups.
BASE-IT also takes a unique approach to pedagogy. Dr. Chris Darken is applying and expanding agent technology in the PC gaming environment to provide the ability to play out alternative courses of action from specific points in a live training event. In today’s training environment there are very few tools for demonstrating what ‘right’ looks like. Chris is working on integrating details such as realistic motion through the environment based on accurate modeling of perceived threat. These variables, much more so than visual fidelity – drive potential training value.
BASE-IT demonstrates the right approach to simulation – both bridging the operational and technical environments but also combining related disciplines. In this case disciplines include: computer vision, training effectiveness evaluation, pedagogy, agent technology, and perceptual modeling. Simulation and gaming often seems to be developed based on upgrades to existing versions: improvements to graphics quality, number of players supported or ease of authorship. BASE-IT leverages a much deeper understanding of user needs. The project was inspired by extensive field experimentation work. In looking to improve the value of live training events, Amela and her team took a novel approach. The aim was not on advancing individual technologies, but rather it aimed to seek new approaches by combining existing technical areas. That is typical of MOVES approach to simulation. Start with a deep understanding of user needs and foster interdisciplinary solutions to generate innovative and practical solutions.
That sounds like a great approach for anyone to consider. The curriculum of the Institute sounds amazing – courses range from “Graphical Simulation of Physical Systems in Virtual Worlds” to “Advanced Discrete Event Simulation Modeling” to “Computer Graphics Modeling Using X3D/VRML”. How do you keep the curriculum current?
Primarily via our curriculum sponsors – Navy, Marine Corps, Army and International agencies that employ our graduates provide feedback on the skill set required to manage next-generation modeling and simulation projects. We also rely on other Board of Advisor members that represent similar academic groups and industry. Our students and graduates’ practical experience and seniority - normally between 10-15 years as Aviators, Surface Warfare Officers, Infantry, Artillery, Communications Officers, etc – also plays a big part. Our students come to NPS with a wealth of operational experience. They are highly motivated, proven leaders and have exceptional problem solving skills. They place high expectations on themselves but also on the academic program. This definitely works in our favor in keeping the curriculum current and relevant.
The facilities are similarly impressive. Can you describe some of your laboratory and studio spaces?
In comparison to similar programs, I think our physical facilities are fairly modest, highlighting practicality and remarkably efficient use of space. Capabilities range from an immersive CAVE environment, a motion capture system, extensive marksmanship training systems to support for LIDAR and spherical-vision based augmented reality. We’re also able to leverage NPS’ larger capabilities for extensive field experimentation at nearby Camp Roberts. This includes a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, network and command and control systems. We also have a very good track record involving operation and training commands as virtual extensions of our laboratories. We tend to be able to coordinate and integrate with other organizations quite well. One of our newest PhDs recently coordinated with the FAA and multiple other agencies to designate airspace specifically for an unprecedented in-flight training transfer study related to stress and training. Our operational focus leads us to a pretty broad definition of ‘laboratory.’
Where do your graduates end up working?
It’s service-specific. Army and Marine Corps graduate utilization is outstanding. Our graduates are assigned to both the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Office (MCMSO) and Army Modeling and Simulation Proponent Office. Marine Corps officers have gone on to manage major M&S projects such as Deployable Virtual Training Environments (DVTE). Army officers have a dedicated career path for simulation professionals and routinely serve in operation units as well as senior leadership roles. The Navy’s utilization has not proven to be quite as efficient as our Marine Corps and Army counter-parts. This remains one of the more significant challenges ahead.
I’d also like to add that because of recent legislative changes we’ve been able to open our Masters and PhD programs to qualified civilians. Hopefully someday soon I will be describing the jobs civilian MOVES graduates take on.
What else lies ahead for the MOVES Institute?
We view modeling, virtual environments and simulation as a growth industry. The MOVES Institute has played a key role in the evolution of M&S as a discipline and will continue to do so. There are a quite a few areas we see a need for leap-ahead capabilities:
Training design and effectiveness and the science of learning and collaborating using gaming and virtual environments: recent reviews of the Navy’s use of computer based training highlight key areas for growth. The DoD’s ability to respond to asymmetric threats and leverage technology hinges on our ability to train and re-train personnel. This calls for radical improvements in our ability to achieve advanced distributed learning. We think NPS and MOVES is the right place to explore these topic areas.
Similarly the demands on gaming and simulation for training – and particularly deployable simulation – continue to accelerate. The science supporting live versus virtual or constructive training trade off decisions is vital to DoD. These are incredibly difficult issues to take on. But, again, I think NPS is uniquely qualified to help find answers that work.
Combat Modeling for Irregular Warfare. Conflict is no longer exclusively viewed as a kinetic, force on force evolution. We are fairly adept at analysis and training for the role of marksman, but much less so for the role of mayor. We need to much better at modeling how individuals and societies behave and respond. In terms of evolution of the discipline of modeling and simulation there is tremendous potential for entirely novel application of existing disciplines. How would game-based training evolve if we could integrate social scientist and cultural anthropologists into the game design process?
Simulation Interoperability has been a vexing problem since the first large-scale distributed simulations. This remains one of the major roadblocks to adoption of games and simulation and will remain one of the MOVES Institute’s key focus areas.
Everyone in this industry will likely reap some of the benefits of your continued research and exploration in those areas. Thanks so much for taking the time for this conversation. We look forward to seeing the continued evolution of the Institute.
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