NRL Virtual Map Brings New Dimension to Combat Exercise

3/4/1997 - 13-97r
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A three-dimensional (3-D), interactive terrain map of the battlefield being used by the Marine Corps in an upcoming test exercise has been designed and developed by researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory's (NRL's) Virtual Reality Lab. This virtual map, which will be used to help the command visualize the entire battle space during the Marines' "Hunter-Warrior Advanced Warfighting Experiment (AWE)," is being tested as a rapid decision making tool for the real world.

"Hunter-Warrior AWE" is one phase of Sea Dragon. It is the culminating experiment of the Hunter-Warrior phase (Phase I) of the Commandant's Warfighting Laboratory's (CWL's) Five-Year Plan to evaluate new tactics, techniques, procedures and technologies. Sea Dragon will be examining the use of these technologies when combined, for improved tactics, techniques, and procedures to provide revolutionary improvements to the command and control process.

NRL's tactical map was developed for use with a Responsive Workbench, a 4' by 6' table like graphics system that displays computer-generated images, which can be seen by the user in 3 D with light-weight stereoscopic glasses. The image on the workbench simulates an actual situation and can be manipulated by the operator through the use of a flight stick, special "tracking" glove or other hand-held input device. In this way, users can obtain information by interacting with virtual objects and environments as if they were real. And unlike more traditional virtual reality technology, the workbench allows multiple users to share the virtual space and at the same time interact with each other in the real-world physical space.

In the NRL application called the Virtual Reality Responsive Workbench (VRRW), a regular map of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Combat Center at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, has been enhanced to bring to life the topography of a 1,755 square mile area. The SPMAGTF(X) and his staff in the Enhanced Combat Operations Center at Camp Pendleton, California, will be able to track the movement of aircraft, land vehicles and units as small as fire teams throughout the battle terrain. Hundreds of aircraft, ships, vehicles and other objects, representing thousands of Marines, will interact with each other on the workbench as the exercise unfolds. Users have the option of changing their viewpoint to take advantage of the three dimensionality of the terrain. For example, changing the viewpoint to a hill top reveals quickly which units are visible from that vantage point.

Unit icons (tanks, trucks, artillery, etc.) are accurate 3-D representations of the actual equipment and thus are easily identified by the commander. Double encoding is used to assure correct identification of friend or foe. For instance, enemy units have a darker camouflage pattern than friendly units. They also display the Jolly Roger (skull and crossed bones) while friendly units display the stars and stripes. A commander can receive pertinent information about a unit simply by pointing at it. The information is immediately displayed on the surface of the glass in a heads-up display (HUD). Information available on the HUD includes latitude and longitude, elevation, distance and heading to the next objective, as well as six lines of freeform text -- to make swift, informed decisions.

During the Hunter-Warrior experiment, Marine units will be equipped with digital radios, hand-held computers and global positioning units, which will allow them to share position information and other data with the Enhanced Combat Operations Center. This information will be updated on the workbench on a near-real time basis, providing the command with up-to date situational awareness and intelligence information.

An aerial view of the terrain that can change in perspective with a wave of the hand is ideal for this type of application. "The idea," says VR graphics programmer Bob Doyle, "is to get away from paper maps and acetate overlays. We want to provide the commander with a single, integrated image to use for planning and shaping strategy."

Marine Captain Matthew Rau of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, Experimental (SPMAGTF (X)) expects that the ability to manipulate the terrain will greatly enhance appreciation for the 3-D battle space and raises questions about the value of traditional maps for this type of application. "Based on our experience," he says, "20 minutes is all that the commander and staff require to learn how to manipulate the terrain and objects. The virtue of this technology is its simplicity."

"Of course, as more requirements are laid on the system," notes Capt Rau, "the more difficult it will be to learn. But, with the eventual addition of prevailing weather in 3-D representation, the command and staff will be able to fully appreciate the full interaction of weather, enemy and terrain."

Doyle and co-researcher Jim Durbin have been working with members of SPMAGTF (X) and the CWL since July 1996 to prepare for the March 1997 exercise. NRL delivered the first version of the workbench in just five months, a remarkably short period of time. Doyle notes that "our biggest challenge was not how to generate the data, but how to visualize it. We have used the very latest techniques in computer graphics to achieve the daunting requirements for an operation of this scope. For example, the image used to texture the terrain model (the actual map) is roughly 8000 x 8000 pixels. This image alone requires 125 megabytes of storage, but it is really theminimum size that will provide the Marines with acceptable geographic detail. To rapidly page in and out sections of the map requires graphics hardware that didn't exist a year ago.

Following the Marines' analysis of the Virtual Reality Responsive Workbench, the researchers and VR Lab director, Dr. Larry Rosenblum, are looking ahead to the future workbench. This will actually be an array of workbenches, which will be networked for real-time planning, execution and analysis by Marine commanders located at Marine bases and on ships at sea around the world.

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