by Donald McCormack, Steven Aguiar, and Philip Monte
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
Submarine C2 Visualization and Analysis
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.