In the early 2000s, the U.S. military committed to adapting gaming technology to its training efforts. The commitment was hailed as forward-looking by analysts, who cited the Pentagon’s assessment both that the advances in gaming would appeal to a new generation of recruits, and that the realism afforded by game-based training technologies could achieve some of the military’s training goals while cutting training costs.
Along came Bohemia Interactive Simulations, then a Czech Republic-based company and now a multinational corporation owned by the private equity group Riverside Company. It adapted its existing commercial game, Operation Flashpoint, to a training tool under the name Virtual Battlespace (VBS), providing a simulator for warfighters to train collectively in a high-fidelity, first-person virtual environment.
The first iteration of VBS came onto the market in 2004 when game-based training was still in its infancy, but military organizations around the world quickly realized its potential. VBS was soon adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps and the Australian Defence Force and later by NATO militaries and others with similar training needs. The Marine Corps funded further improvements, the capability of the software quickly grew, and organizations developed well over 100 use cases for the platform.
Today, VBS is used in more than 30 countries, and tens of thousands of NATO personnel are trained with VBS every year. In 2009, the U.S. Army committed $17 million to acquire 3,500 copies of the second version of Virtual Battle Space, VBS2.
“The underlying reason VBS has become such a standard is our total dedication to military customers and the military simulation industry,” said Peter Morrison, co-CEO of Bohemia Interactive Simulations. “Our strong video game technology heritage means our technology advances quickly, cost-effectively and based on robust middleware, and we have the substantial capabilities of our excellent programmer and designer team. But beyond that, it is the privileged position and trust we have been afforded by our awesome military customers that has been behind the advancement of VBS.”
VBS3 has since been introduced, and it broadens and deepens the platform’s capabilities. Advances in VBS3 include support of greater number of training use cases and the ability to portray terrains much larger than previous versions, allowing VBS3, unlike its competitors, to be used for flight simulations, among other things. Bohemia has more recently been working on the maritime domain to simulate realistic sea states, vessel physics and coastal effects.
Incorporating New Features
The ubiquity of the VBS platform has motivated users and developers alike to enhance the utility of the software by taking it in two directions: integrating VBS into broader existing training platforms and developing new features that can be incorporated into VBS.
Some companies have an easier time than others accomplishing these integration tasks, with the speed of extraction of data from VBS being a major point of contention. But there is no doubt that integration is doable and that it is encouraged and supported by Bohemia Interactive Simulations. Efforts are underway to make integration easier.
“VBS3 is the training system of record for the U.S. Army and it has become the de facto system for just about every training unit,” said Courtney Dean, a senior scientist at Aptima. “It has largely been adopted by the Marine Corps as well.”
Bohemia Interactive’s original market success with VBS was attributable to three factors, according to Fredrik Ullner, a virtual programs engineer at Saab Defense and Security. “It was priced aggressively,” he said. “VBS1 was priced in the tens of thousands of dollars, versus other simulations priced in the millions.”
The user interface was “quite good” and the overall package was “good enough,” in Ullner’s view. “It was a desktop system, so users didn’t have to buy any new hardware, and it fulfilled many of the requirements people had at that time.” The third factor was that it was built on existing intellectual property Bohemia Interactive owned in the form of the Operation Flashpoint game.
Aptima is developing performance measurement tools that can be added to VBS. “The intent is to provide enhancement to training outcomes by incorporating these tools within VBS3,” said Dean.
Simthetiq produces vehicle models and terrain environments, which are often required to interact with VBS or be available in VBS format. “We have developed conversion tools internally that allow us to work from a common source to output 3-D models in VBS format, as well as for other run-time engines,” said Gareth Jones, the company’s director of marketing and sales.
Ullner sees VBS as “sufficient for most requirements, but it doesn’t solve all scenarios.” “People use it as a game with training elements,” he added. “It is still not fleshed out as a platform.”
Saab’s customers often find VBS meets basic training requirements, but they often want additional features. “If they want something more specialized, VBS doesn’t quite cut it,” said Ullner. “The basic artificial intelligence is rudimentary at best. Certain damage models exist in VBS, but they need to be improved.”
Saab has worked on integrating VBS into its customers’ larger training systems and has also developed add-on software such as graphical interfaces for fire control and targeting systems.
The core features of VBS1 that made it a success, in Morrison’s view, included its high-fidelity first-person virtual environment, an easy-to-use mission editor, its collective training capability and the after-action review. “These core features have remained the same through VBS2 and VBS3,” said Morrison. “However, they have been refined in accordance with the evolving needs of VBS users and by inserting many new technologies from the commercial video game industry.”
Over the years, and through its three major iterations, VBS has supported many more training use cases. For example, VBS1 supported small terrains of up to 100 kilometers square, while VBS3 can handle terrains of orders of magnitude larger than that.
“By the end of 2015, the VBS image generator will provide a representation of the entire planet,” said Morrison. “This means that VBS3 and VBS IG are suitable for use in flight simulation, whereas VBS1 and VBS2 were not.”
Bohemia has been focusing on the maritime domain recently, with features that simulate sea states and corresponding ship physics. “We have developed a fully dynamic, 3-D sea-state model that simulates realistic surface conditions,” said Morrison. “Ships and other objects floating in the water are affected by interactions with the waves, and ships leave wakes in the water and create bow wakes. Waves can also be affected by wind direction. Our sea states, as well as other aspects of the maritime simulation, such as the opacity and color of the water, can easily be adjusted in the scenario settings. The VBS sea state model also helps produce realistic coastal effects.”
Bohemia regards VBS as an open platform, and VBS3 ships with a free interface for creating plug-ins. “We also offer VBS Fusion,” a more full-featured application programming interface (API), said Morrison, “and we are looking to improve from the ground up the ability of VBS to interface with add-on software and to support add-on development. A market has formed around development of VBS3 content and plug-ins and we encourage this.”
Bohemia Interactive primarily seeks development contracts to improve the underlying technology and the company encourages its customers to source VBS content and plug-in development work from the market. “Through modularization and improving our API access,” said Morrison, “we are opening up VBS even further and we’ll be announcing some big news regarding this in the near future.”
The performance measures Aptima has developed for VBS2 and VBS3 allow instructors to tap into the actions of individuals participating in training scenarios to evaluate whether their behaviors are contributing to mission success, both from a tactical and a technical perspective.
“We want our measurements to reflect the greater competencies expected of warfighters—21st-century competencies,” said Dean. “Those include adaptability and decision-making confidence.”
Aptima’s performance-measurement tools are designed to aid instructors in evaluating trainees, but not to evaluate trainees independently. The tools are able to capture a wealth of data on trainee performance from VBS that human instructors could not possibly keep up with. The tools provide that data to instructors through dashboards and trend analyses that aid the instructor in completing a trainee evaluation.
The Aptima tools can be applied to ambush and other attack scenarios to measure, for example, what and how trainees are communicating in those situations. The scenarios are bundled with performance measures that are specific to the competencies being trained. Instructors can make ratings based on behaviors they are observing and on the data being provided by the tools.
“Those performance components can be displayed individually or combined with like measurements in real time and displayed on a dashboard,” said Dean. “These performance measurements always have a human in the loop.”
Aptima’s development of performance measures is intended as a demonstration of what the company’s capabilities can perform within VBS. “We intend to continue with the types of demonstrations we have been doing over the last couple of years,” said Dean. “What we are intending to do is to show the value of performance measurement tools as exemplified in a leading simulation used throughout the Department of Defense.”
“We have an extensive library of Distributed Interactive Simulation (DIS) and High-Level Architecture (HLA) compliant COTS content that we put to work for our customers,” said Simthetiq’s Jones. “When a custom fit is required, we develop new content using open-source references. The result is highly accurate, runtime-ready models of vehicles or terrain environments that meet our customers’ needs.”
DIS and HLA are interoperability standards used in modeling and simulation.
Many of Simthetiq’s customers use VBS as their main runtime environment, or need to interact with VBS in some way. “To meet this demand, we use our own library of models and convert them to VBS format, or develop custom models that are integrated into VBS,” said Jones. “We will even integrate third-party content for customers if required. When we deliver a VBS-configured product to our customers, they are quickly able to integrate them into their own systems so they can run them in their VBS-based scenarios and training exercises.”
The relative ease or difficulty of integration of these add-ons into VBS3 is a matter of some disagreement among developers. But the verdict is unanimous that the required integration can be successfully accomplished and that the process is supported by Bohemia Interactive.
“VBS3 is an excellent platform and produces easily consumed data,” said Dean. “Our performance engine tool relies on output from the simulation in order to complete the performance measures. VBS is easily programmed, and we used that compatibility in planning our own technology. We developed our tools to make them easy to modify and apply so that the integration required is relatively easy to achieve and the integration issue is a low barrier to success.”
The process of integrating 3-D content into VBS isn’t “witchcraft,” said Jones, but it certainly takes experience and know-how to achieve the right results.
“When first we started out, it would take us a minimum of two weeks to integrate a model into VBS,” he related. “Now, depending on the complexity of the model, we are able to cut that time in half or more. In order to be able to do this, we have developed a fruitful dialog with both Bohemia Interactive and our customers. By having an open discussion with our customers, we are able to identify their key VBS requirements, provide our expert advice and help speed up what could otherwise be a complex and time-consuming process.”
“Bohemia has a baseline of content that comes with everybody’s license,” said Ullner, “but it is understood that military customers at times will want to develop their own body of capabilities that for reasons of confidentially they don’t want it out there.”
Saab’s customers sometimes want VBS to be integrated with other systems, a task the company can accomplish with its own integration platform, WISE Connectivity. “We can integrate pretty much any system depending on what customers want,” said Ullner.
Saab has also built add-on components on behalf of customers for integration within VBS. Among the plug-ins Sab has developed are simulations relating to artillery firing and troop movements.
Ullner has found that Bohemia’s Fusion tool has been adequate for many integration plug-ins. For others, however, it has been found wanting. So Saab, for one, had to dive deeper into the VBS engine to make the integration happen.
VBS’s APIs make plug-ins “easier to build and manage,” said Ullner, but they have “restrictive interfaces” so that “we can’t do everything we want to do, such as perform advanced maneuvers with vehicles. We have moved away from the existing APIs where we need access to raw data from the system.”
This situation presents yet another issue, in that the VBS engine can’t inject and extract data as fast as Saab would prefer. “The VBS APIs don’t refresh the data at the 60-times-per-second rate that we would like,” said Ullner.
“Configuration management is always a challenge, and backwards compatibility is often difficult to maintain as new features are rapidly added to VBS,” Morrison acknowledged. “We are committing significant independent research and development toward new technology to solve these types of issues as well as investing in a more sophisticated support and professional services capability.”
Bohemia is also working with various standards to ensure VBS leverages non-proprietary technology and standards wherever possible, especially for content such as terrain and 3-D models. “We have significant experience and expertise in managing add-ons and plug-ins on behalf of our customers and we believe software integration will be an important part of many future simulation projects,” said Morrison.
“We also see the development of new, cheap and road-tested COTS hardware products such as the [virtual reality system] Oculus Rift, motion platforms and new inputs to simulations such as motion-capture gloves, and the raft of newly forming cloud technology companies being part of this add-on integration process.”
As for future VBS developments, Bohemia is rapidly modularizing VBS to allow easier access for systems integrators and to better leverage cloud deployment and processing, meeting an even broader range of use cases. “This year we announced VBS Blue, the whole-earth rendering engine behind VBS IG, which allows most modern simulators to leverage VBS3 visuals and content,” said Morrison. “We also released VBS Gateway, our new HLA/DIS/CIGI [common image generator interface] gateway for VBS3” to promote interoperability, “and announced VBS Tactics, a new, easy-to-use multi-platform interface for controlling doctrinal AI in VBS3.”
In parallel, Bohemia is improving VBS3 in accordance with various development contracts, such as the recent $12 million post-deployment software support award by the Marine Corps, and through significant independent research and development investment.
- Issue: 3
- Volume: 18