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P2P Goes To War

by Richard Koman

For several decades, the military has been using large-scale client-server systems to build networked environments where soldiers can train in simulated battle conditions. Now the military is looking at peer-to-peer technology as a way to build these simulations without a vulnerable central server. Michael Macedonia, the Chief Scientist and Technical Director for the U.S. Army Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), talks with O'Reilly editor Richard Koman about how the military simulates battle, how peer-to-peer technology could change that, and the advances that have made a $69 flight simulator program as valuable as the multimillion dollar systems of a few years ago. Michael Macedonia will talk at the O'Reilly's Peer-to-Peer and Web Services Conference, September 18-21, in Washington, DC.

Koman: What's the military's interest in peer-to-peer technology?

Macedonia: We're trying to develop a model here of simulation that essentially provides a very powerful computing capability to every soldier in the Army. We foresee over the next three to five years a need for highly networked, very powerful mobile computers. We have a buzzword here. We call it "simulation on demand," so that when you need to learn something, when you need to experience something, when you need to plan something, you can instantly get it.

We have a number of programs, for instance, the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, which is a vehicle simulator that's networked together, and you can go play combat with 40 other crews in a building.

Koman: Can you walk us through that scenario?

Macedonia: The way the Close Combat Tactical Trainer works is that you have modules that represent Bradley or Abrams fighting vehicles, and typically there are about 40 of these modules, and they're configured based on what the makeup of the units are at that location. So at Fort Hood, Texas, they have about 25 tank modules and about 15 Bradley modules in one building. And these modules, if you go inside them, look identical to the combat vehicle itself.

Koman: They're full-scale models of the real thing?

Macedonia: Well, in the crew compartments. I mean, if you stand outside, they're definitely not full size because there's no gun on them or anything. They're simulators. The crew gets in the simulator and they look out through the optics or the fire control and see a virtual environment. We've got databases that represent the National Training Center, which is in the Mojave Desert, for example. We have a central European one. We have a Kosovo database. We have a Fort Hood database. They could actually go virtually fight the back forty at Fort Hood--cow patch, creek, whatever. So each of these forty modules is networked to each other over an Ethernet, so essentially since it's a peer-to-peer environment equal in computing capacity.

But it's rather limited. Now you can tie these different sites together and create virtually larger units. What we'd like eventually is to have everybody able to carry that environment with them. So they could be wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) and have that synthetic environment projected into the head-mounted display. So basically, folks could go fight an augmented reality and actually fight against synthetic characters that are projected into their HMD. They would have the same physical challenge of running around buildings, but then they would see virtual enemies, good guys, or virtual neutrals, like virtual police.

Koman: And the individuals are linked together?

Macedonia: All linked together. What we're trying to do right now is sort of baby-step and we're looking at different communications technologies to be able to do that. One idea is using an 802.11 LAN with everybody. We also have some digital radios that we've been messing around with.

Koman: So what would these simulations look like before peer-to-peer?

Macedonia: Well, we have an example of it over at the Navy Research Labs (NRL)and at Columbia University, and there are also huge research labs out in Malibu that have been working on augmented reality systems. The Columbia system was shown at SIGGraph this year. They basically take a Dell Inspiron laptop with an Invidia graphics chip in it and strap it to a guy's back, and they tie it to a head-mounted display and a high-precision tracker. So, for example, if you looked at different buildings or different booths and stuff like that, it would automatically tell the wearer of the system what they were looking at. So it was great for spatial recognition. The Navy Research Lab has a very high-precision, differential GPS on it, and it's good down to, I believe, one centimeter.

Koman: So it's displaying your GPS location?

Macedonia: Yes, but it's really good because you can look at a window and it will tell you who's working on the other side of that window. If you're walking around the buildings at NRL with the system on, you can look up at a building and it'll tell you what the room number is and who's in that room. I mean, it's very spooky when you wear this thing.

Koman: So is everybody wearing a GPS so we know who's on the other side of the window?

Macedonia: Well, for example, you could annotate a window and say, "There was a sniper here yesterday." If the next day somebody's wearing the system, he would know, "Watch out, there was a sniper here yesterday," or, "This is where we left the ammunition," and so on. So that's one step. In that application, you're using it as a navigation tool. We're pushing it a little further as we have the Institute for Creative Technologies out at UCF working on it. Our interest is bringing in these synthetic characters, or synthespians, and letting them play in your world. I mean, frankly, if I can have 3-D graphics superimposed onto my display, then I could put synthetic actors, as well as virtually represent real people who are actually someplace else.

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