VR helps train medics in the Armed Forces
Professor Robert Stone, Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team Director at University of Birmingham, blogs for IoTUK about how virtual reality is helping the British Army’s medical emergency response team train for real-life scenarios on the battlefield.
Since leaving university I have worked mostly in the defence sector and, for the last thirty years, I have worked in virtual reality on a variety of projects, including submarine training and designing the simulator for the UK’s latest bomb disposal system called CUTLASS.
Now, I am looking into the latest variation on the VR theme – a new technology called mixed reality, one project of which may well offer future members of the Armed Forces and Emergency Services an advanced command and control station straight out of a briefcase. As you walk into our lab you’ll find an empty table and a motion capture system which, as you put a virtual reality headset on, places you into a terrorist scenario that is developing on the table. You can then interact with that scenario by moving around and swiping across with your hands; just like you would use an iPad but moving aircraft, drones and vessels.
We presented this concept to a colleague of mine called Colonel Peter Mahoney, who is an Emeritus Defence Professor of Anaesthesia at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine; an organisation that we have been working with on virtual reality projects supporting defence medical training and post traumatic stress for many years. Mahoney saw the value of using virtual reality for future training of defence medical response teams and found us funding to explore this idea further.
With the funding in place, I began thinking about creating an inflatable enclosure that we could put people in wearing a virtual reality headset. This concept was to be used as an experimental testbed to analyse what makes sense to be displayed in virtual reality and what makes sense to be displayed in reality.
Part of the challenge for the Armed Forces is how to carry out their tasks in a very constrained environment and for us it was about how to simulate an environment that closely mimics what they do in the real world.
This is why our virtual reality scenario transports trainees inside a Chinook helicopter in mid-flight; tending to the injuries of a synthetic and extremely lifelike male mannequin whose right leg has been blown off. The reason we chose a Chinook is because it’s the aircraft currently being used to evacuate casualties from operational missions.
One of the strengths of this project is the ability to change the look of the inflatable enclosure to adapt it to the requirements of different branches of the British Armed Forces.
Making virtual reality believable
One of the most common items of feedback we receive is that the smell the Armed Forces remember most when inside a real Chinook is the aviation fuel. So smell, I believe, will play a very important part in believability. The visual side of virtual reality is progressing along quickly, particularly when you compare it to the 90s. The sense of touch is still quite immature, which is why we use a real mannequin in our mock scenario. Sound is also key when developing this environment because, I believe, it creates a greater feeling of presence and engagement.
How VR has changed over thirty years
I have mixed feelings about the history of VR. Even though, two decades ago, the technology was far more expensive and primitive than it is today, the 1990s fostered a lot of hype and false promises.
I believe virtual reality has much more to offer the world than putting on a headset and shooting zombies or playing action games, as seems to be the preoccupation today; it truly can offer tangible benefits to real people performing real tasks in the real world.