UNDERSTANDING THE VIRTUAL WORLD: The Congressional Research Service (CSR) recently issued a report entitled "Avatars, Virtual Reality Technology, and the U.S. Military: Emerging Policy Issues" that highlights different ways the federal government has been using virtual reality to train soldiers and treat veterans while also warning that terrorists may be availing themselves of this same technology to train more realistically for future attacks. Image: Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Antonis Papantoniou
The tools of the so-called Web 2.0 world—including social networking sites, virtual worlds and wikis—have introduced new and creative ways to tap the Internet's potential. They have also drawn the concern of lawmakers, who are searching for ways to make them available to the military and intelligence communities as well as understand how terrorists might also be employing them to train for and plan attacks.
The Congressional Research Service (CSR) recently released a report warning that enemies may be using the same Web-based, collaborative technology to prepare for future strikes that the U.S. uses to train soldiers and gather intelligence. The U.S. military became familiar with Web 2.0, in part, because of online communities created by junior officers during the Iraq war to share strategic information. U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) officials were initially skeptical, worried that classified information might be compromised. But, according to the CRS report, Pentagon brass were ultimately persuaded of the benefits and, in 2004, developed CAVNet, a computer network that allows fast access to combat intel. The military also has official information-sharing Web sites such as CompanyCommand and PlatoonLeader, which are available to commissioned officers.
As the military has become more comfortable with the Web as a medium for monitoring and sharing information, officials have also turned to virtual reality technology and virtual worlds as training tools for troops.
"Training with [virtual reality] allows large numbers of personnel to interact in a simulated face-to-face environment with other distant military units through the Internet (or through the classified government network known as SIPRNET), and with first-responder units, civilians, and even [with] medical personnel units," Clay Wilson, the technology and national security specialist in CSR's Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division, says in the report. Virtual reality–based training can give a soldier at a computer the impression that he or she is guarding a Baghdad checkpoint or a New York City subway tunnel. In these virtual worlds, troops encounter avatars that can even simulate local citizens with whom they may interact.
The CRS reports that the U.S. military plans to build a virtual world called Sentient Worldwide Simulation that would include highly detailed digital renderings of different real-life cities worldwide, much the same way the Second Life virtual world is filled with banks, stores and other landmarks that give a more realistic feel. The goal is to use it, among other things, to help train medics and National Guard members to respond during emergencies.
U.S. Joint Forces Command's (USJFCOM) Joint Experimentation Directorate, which conducts research and development into new war fighting concepts, has also been experimenting with virtual reality training. It utilizes a program called Noble Resolve designed to improve the urban warfare skills of future joint force commanders. In one simulation, a nuclear bomb is on the verge of detonation and the military must coordinate with local, state, national and international officials to find and diffuse the weapon as well as prepare for mass evacuations.
For the past three years the Pentagon has also been testing the potential of virtual reality in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. In essence, therapists immerse victims in a virtual world complete with visual and sound effects that recreate the source of their fears and flashbacks from Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, according to Defense Update, an online site that covers military issues. The idea is to reintroduce the patients to the experiences that triggered their trauma in an attempt to make the memories more tolerable. It's a method the military believes may work with a generation of soldiers raised on video games.
The CRS report raises questions that have to do with the Internet in general, noting that Congress must figure out ways to protect U.S. businesses, power utilities and the military from potentially paralyzing cyber attacks. The report cites Asian countries—most notably China—as a particularly significant cyber threat to the U.S., because they place such a large emphasis on online activity. China, for example, has begun construction of a 3-D virtual world called HiPiHi, which is expected to support up to 75 million simultaneous users.
Other questions the CRS report raises (but does not attempt to answer) include: Should the DoD look at using the Web as a means of attacking enemy computers? How does the U.S.'s ability to communicate via the Internet compare with that of China and other countries? And, to what extent could the Internet help the intelligence community track possible terrorist activity? The report makes clear these are significant issues Congress must soon address.