Gamers set for military service?

27 April 2015

Interview with

Professor Bob Stone, University of Birmingham

Afghan VillageTechnology from video games is at the bleeding edge, so why not use it in other areas of society?  Bob Stone is from the Human Interface Technologies team at the University of Birmingham and his group are at the forefront of using video games in all kind of ways - from helping to train the military, to digital restoration as he explained to Kat Arney...

Bob - We're actually quite a small team and what I try to do, having joined the university in 2003, is to look at how we can use gaming technology, because it's much more affordable and much more accessible than the bad old virtual reality days of the 1990s, to help design simulations, if you like, for real world applications, particularly in training and also in design.

Kat - Now, are we talking about just the kind of the Shoot 'Em Up thing? if you're thinking about training the military, is that the only kind of thing that's useful for training soldiers?

Bob - No, but obviously, the training gunnery using low cost games technologies is a bit of a no-brainer. But the work that we've been doing over the last 10 years or so has been looking into using it to train bomb disposal experts. The guys who for example are controlling the latest CUTLASS bomb disposal robot that's been seen on the TV recently. Also things like introducing new submariner recruits to become spatially aware of the safety elements of items on board submarines.

Kat - Are these video games more effective than old fashioned training? Could they be a complete replacement? Could you imagine that someone who's just been trained in a virtual submarine, you go, "Right, off you go. Get in the boat out there"?

Bob - No, not yet. I don't think that's the case. I think they're very additive onto sort of existing training regimes. We found with the SUBSAFE programme, for example, that we can introduce the virtual submarine into specific items in the classroom, in the actual training regime as opposed to replacing it altogether. But it did significantly affect their performance when they went on-board the submarine for the first time.

Kat - And are we're just talking about virtual reality techniques here or are there other types of software in technology that are applicable for this type of training?

Bob - Well, there are other types. I mean, virtual reality is the area that I've been involved in for the last 28 years. So to me, it really is giving us access to something we couldn't do in the 1990s. But the thing with games is, you can also link it into other forms of media. You can link it into videos, text, you can link it into sound, you can link it into smell. I think the games technology is giving us the ability to exploit multisensory environments more so than ever before.

Kat - Now, I've seen things like footage of US and UK military soldiers basically using what looks like an Xbox controller to fly drones in real war situations. Are games effectively training the trigger fingers of the next generation of soldiers?

Bob - Well, it's not actually training the trigger fingers. I think what you're finding particularly in the US and the UK military are doing is they're recognising that many of the youngsters who want to take up a career in the armed forces are games competent. They're games ready for want of a better description. So, they're now looking at the ergonomics, the human factors of this and introducing Xbox PS4 shaped controllers into their systems so when they come on-board, they're more familiar.

Kat - So, the game software is actually and the game hardware is driving what the military want to make their stuff like.

Bob - Well indeed, yes and also making sure that when the youngsters come into the military, they're presented with training based packages that are similar to what they have at home. The legacy training - they just simply cannot engage the youngsters with the old styles of training anymore.

Kat - And so, very briefly, we've talked about the military applications for this, but what other things have you been looking at?

Bob - Well, the other big success stories for us are in what we call, healthcare and heritage. Just very briefly, we've got two games based simulations of two areas of outstanding national beauty in the west country in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Birmingham, undergoing trials to look at helping patients recovery times from traumatic operations and that's a very exciting area.

Kat - Wow! So, you can go for a virtual walk while you're still in a hospital.

Bob - Yes, so if you wake up and rather than just seeing glass, bricks and metal, you actually have a window onto an alternative world that is synchronised with the real time of day. So rather than seeing urban sprawl, you can see the coast at Wembury, watch the waves come in, hear the sounds, or watch the sun go down.

Virtual Wembery in Intensive Care Unit

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