The Emergence of A Military Metaverse In 5 Examples

By Andy Fawkes

The military helped build the Internet and they are helping to build the metaverse too.  Indeed, military involvement in the metaverse can be traced back to the 1960s and here we will explore some of these military-sponsored developments that have helped contribute to the building of the metaverse and how such work continues today.

The article explores a range of examples that indicate the emergence of a military metaverse, starting from historic technological developments to present-day applications.

Networked Virtual Worlds

As computer networking and computer graphics advanced in the 1980s, visionaries such as USAF Capt Jack Thorpe saw the opportunity to develop affordable networked simulators so that hundreds of warfighters could train and experiment together in the same virtual world.  Thorpe led the SIMNET (SIMulator NETworking) US DARPA-funded program which went on to develop a network of 260 simulators at 11 sites in the USA and Europe including tank and aircraft simulators and was made operational by the US Army in January 1990.  Today, warfighters routinely train in large networks of simulators similar to SIMNET whether it be the British Army Combined Arms Tactical Trainer or USAF Distributed Mission Operations network of combat flight simulators.  Further, partner nations train and experiment together over large geographic distances by connecting their national simulation systems, sometimes over highly classified networks and sometimes over the Internet.  Although many of the networked systems remain challenging to connect rapidly, Thorpe’s bold vision of a persistent networked simulation system supporting experimentation, training, and mission preparation has been partly realised.

Blending the Real and Digital Worlds

In the late 1980s the concept of integrating live training into the virtual exercises was investigated by the US Navy.  In its Battle Force In-Port Trainer exercises the USN together with DARPA networked over long-haul links the real amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Wasp alongside in Norfolk, Virginia, with Marine Corps SIMNET simulated helicopters, simulated Army tanks, Navy staff command centres, and the Institute for Defense Analyses. It meant that a helicopter simulator flying over simulated terrain could be viewed on the real radar screens of the Wasp from its simulated position 50 miles off the California shore, while it was physically at its Norfolk pier.  This live and virtual integration developed into the LVC or Live-Virtual-Constructive construct that the military routinely exploits today for training and experimentation. For example, in the British Army’s “Synthetic Wrap” the tracked positions of combatants in the real world, for instance on Salisbury Plain, are used to generate a simulated UAV sensor feed for an HQ without requiring an actual UAV.

Interoperability and Openness

Fundamental to creating a network of simulators is the need for a common protocol especially if new types of simulators are later introduced to the network.  This was the case for SIMNET as it grew, and to reduce network traffic a single unified “world model” was shared across all the simulators, each of which would calculate their own status and update the world model. The approaches developed in the 1980s led to the Distributed Interactive Simulation (DIS) protocol, still in use to this day.  Various international bodies have been set up to oversee and develop simulation standards, notably the Simulation Interoperability Standards Organisation (SISO) and the NATO Modelling and Simulation Group (NMSG).  Beyond DIS, the High Level Architecture (HLA) has been developed and different military simulations can now be routinely linked to provide a richer distributed collective training or mission preparation experience.

eXtended Reality

As far back as 1961 Philco engineers developed a video-based HMD or “Headsight “ with tracking so that military operatives could remotely view dangerous situations.  Moving forward to 1982 and exploiting wider computer graphics advancements, the USAF developed the Visually Coupled Airborne System Simulator (VCASS) an HMD which enabled the pilot to control a plane and its weapons with gestures and voice commands.  In the 1990s the US Navy ran a Virtual Environment for Submarine Shiphandling and Piloting Training (VESUB) project which demonstrated that VR-based technology could be effective for training shiphandling skills for novice and expert alike. Moving beyond research, VR-based trainers were introduced at the Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton in 2010 and are still in service today. As other markets such as gaming drive XR technologies, the military are now exploring the use of AR in operations through the US Army Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) program and MR is being introduced for fighter pilot training.


Exploiting Gaming Technologies

Generally considered as the first video game, Spacewar! was developed in 1962 by MIT graduate students on the Pentagon-funded TX-0 computer.  Over the next few decades such computer technologies advancements were principally military sponsored but by the mid-1990s warfighters were realising that some video games were ripe for exploitation.  In 1996 US Marines from the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Management Office developed “Marine Doom”.  Based on id Software’s Doom II, it was aimed at training riflemen who did not have access to expensive simulators.  Initiated in 1999, America’s Army exploited Unreal Engine 2 and was launched in 2002 as a US Army recruitment tool. Working with the US Marines and Australian Army, gaming company Bohemia Interactive released VBS in 2004 based on the Operation Flashpoint game engine and its derivative VBS4 is in service today across the world.  Tapping into the gaming generation, militaries like the RAF have established official internal Esports associations as a further demonstration of the interwoven links of video gaming and military simulation.

These are just some of the developments which illustrate how the military over many decades have explored and put into service metaverse technologies and standards.  These are helping to create a military metaverse that can support the military better prepare for today, tomorrow and the future.

Keen to discover more about the MIlitary Metaverse? Continue reading here.