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by Donald McCormack, Steven Aguiar, and Philip Monte

The last two decades have witnessed dramatic advances in technology to aid system design, analysis, experimentation and training. Building on the computer-aided design (CAD) revolution of the 1990s, a new and more human-centric technological revolution is allowing people to collaborate in many new ways. This broader revolution has already created virtual environments that combine the power of CAD—the foundation for most synthetic environments—with technology such as Web 2.0, gaming engines and distributed modeling and simulation.

These are not just more capable synthetic environments, but fully immersive "virtual worlds" (VWs) where people can come together to innovate. Distributed teams can now design, create and experience any workspace they choose, while enjoying full social interaction with each other both by voice and by visual presence. Today's VWs are laying the foundation for full human immersion into synthetic environments akin to those portrayed in popular science fiction films such as Tron (1982), The Matrix (1999) and Avatar (2009).

Since 2008, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC)'s Newport Division has been investigating the potential of rapidly evolving VW capabilities across all of its mission areas. A team of Newport Division engineers and scientists have been working closely with industry, academia and other military branches to demonstrate ways in which VWs can enhance collaboration and innovation in undersea warfare. The team is exploring many uses for VW technology, but this article focuses on examples of how it can support collaborative engineering in the design of submarine command and control, in the visualization and analysis of command information, in human-in-the-loop experimentation, and in a variety of tactical training.

Image 1, caption below
Figure 1. VW Program Manager Steven Aguiar on a virtual USS Virginia(SSN 774). All graphics courtesy of NUWC Newport Division.

VW Characteristics
Simply speaking, a virtual world is a three-dimensional (3-D) computer environment—often created in real time by the user community—where users are uniquely represented on screen as themselves and can interact with other users. A key trait is that this environment is immersive, letting users feel as if they truly reside in this "world" along with other users. Web 2.0 in particular has allowed VWs to become social environments where users interact both audibly and visually. The Web 2.0 toolset provides a blank palette for users to create and control their own environment based on their individual interests, needs, and requirements. A VW is a user-created experience.

The military must of course be able to deploy VWs within a fully secure network. Driven by operational requirements, by the requirement to safeguard classified information, and by specific information assurance (IA) mandates from the Naval Network Warfare Command (NETWARCOM), the Navy is working closely with commercial-off-the-shelf VW vendors such as Linden Lab (creators of the popular Second Life™ VW) to ensure their products are IA-compliant. The result is a variety of VW configuration options, ranging from public Internet VWs like the 64-acre "Virtual NUWC" campus in Second Life™, to for-official-use-only VWs like Teleplace™ and Second Life Enterprise™ behind the NUWC firewall, to VWs like OpenSimulator™ on classified networks.

Collaborative Engineering
The fundamental requirement for collaborative engineering—i.e., for various scientists and engineers to contribute successfully to a common design—is clear and natural communication channels. In a virtual environment, just as in the physical world, participants must see and hear each other, present ideas to each other, and share content. Today's VWs satisfy these requirements.

VWs represent users as 3-D avatars. An avatar can look photo-realistic, as in Figure 2, and can even track and represent facial expressions. This helps immerse users into the virtual space and give them a greater sense of presence. VWs also support voice and instant messaging within the virtual environment for clear and easy communication. The addition of application-sharing and Web integration allows users to easily share existing 2-D content and media, such as presentations, documents, images and Web-based applications. These capabilities form the basis for robust virtual conferencing and collaboration.

Figure 2, caption below
Figure 2. A photo-realistic avatar (left) in Second Life™ created from digital photographs like the one at right.

VWs give any existing organizational network—whether a private, secure enclave or the open Internet— an immersive interface that facilitates remote and distributed interaction. In other words, any participant on the network can interact with any other participant as if they were in the same physical space, regardless of their actual location. Some VWs like Second Life™ even provide simple Microsoft PowerPoint™-like build tools so that participants can easily collaborate to build content in real-time. User-generated content is the power of Web 2.0. In addition, a number of VW products support the reuse of existing 3-D models in wire mesh formats created from external 3-D modeling applications like the Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA). This allows participants to avoid having to rebuild complex models in the VW.

Designing Submarine Command and Control (C2)
Historically, designers of submarine attack centers have built small-scale physical mockups to help them visualize and evaluate the three-dimensional spatial relationships involved in command and control. Figure 3 shows a design team gathered around a small-scale replica of that sort in 1982. But building a physical model was costly and time-consuming. Furthermore, it did not represent human interaction within the space, so a full-scale plywood mockup eventually had to be built for actual humans to validate preliminary findings from the miniature version.

Figure 3, caption below
Figure 3. An attack center design team in 1982.

In contrast, designers can now lay out a submarine attack center in a virtual world where avatars can represent real-world human interactions. Moreover, not just the design team, but all stakeholders—including the fleet, government civilians and contractors—can potentially collaborate in designing, building, and assessing this virtual layout. Depending on the situation, a single designer could interface with the VW on everyone's behalf, or any given number of participants could interface with it in a distributed fashion through their unique avatars.

A good example of collaborative design is the week-long arrangement studies workshop that the Information Architecture for Improved Decision-Making (IA4IDM) Program held in Groton, Conn., in October 2010. At that event, submarine crews, with the aid of C2 subject-matter experts and cognitive scientists, generated ten separate Command and Control Center (CACC) arrangements in real-time. Figure 4 shows one such arrangement, with ship control moved aft and a 360-degree overhead display provided for the command function. In this depiction, the virtual CACC is kept simple and block-like to emphasize function and location and deemphasize chassis and monitor details. The shipbuilder, General Dynamics Electric Boat, later implemented the fleet's ten conceptual arrangements in CAD to ensure that they could be built (with appropriate modifications).

Figure 4, caption below
Figure 4. A fleet-generated CACC using a VW model.

The design process is iterative, with each successive design linked to source material such as 3-D models of its hardware, documentation of its software systems, and related websites. The resulting "design" is not a single model but a documented evolution of the design process that captures its pedigree, as in Figure 5. Persistent linkage to source material provides knowledge management. As each arrangement decision is reviewed, a complete evolutionary string affecting that decision is available as a walk-through.

Figure 5, caption below
Figure 5. A collaborative environment in Second Life™ documenting the evolution of a submarine C2 center.

Submarine C2 Visualization and Analysis
The next step in the design phase, visualization and analysis, aims to understand all the components that affect C2 decision-making in a Virginia-class CACC. Beyond simple console arrangement, C2 is affected by information architecture components such as workspace, human communications, human-system interface (HSI), team structure, work flow, task flow, automation and training. The goal is to expose each architecture component's effect in a specific mission scenario. For example, in the notional ASW mission string shown in Figure 6, human communications are depicted as green (visual), blue (audio), white (control) and purple (electronic) information paths from earliest detection (in theater) to a command decision. Other components such as task flow can be shown by linked, dynamic "mind maps" located above the appropriate member of the watch team.

Figure 6, caption below
Figure 6. Visualization of C2 information flow in a submarine CACC.

The intent is, first, to play a high-fidelity recorded event within a fully virtual environment, then to expose a particular mission string (e.g., an ASW kill chain), showing only the information architecture components that are affecting the command decision at any given time. This helps determine which metrics to employ in an actual experiment and to document the performance expected from a future CACC design.

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