The US military is building its own Metaverse

US defense technology companies have begun the exploration of the metaverse, applying the metaverse to military simulation exercises.

The US military is building its own Metaverse

On May 10, two fighter pilots conducted a high-altitude Yuan Metaverse experiment. A few thousand feet above the California desert, they flew in a pair of Berkut 540 jets, wearing custom AR headsets connected to a system that covered the ghostly appearance of a refueling plane flying alongside them in the sky glowing image. One pilot then used a virtual tanker to refuel while another watched. Welcome to the fledgling military virtual world.

It’s not just Silicon Valley that is beset by the virtual universe craze these days. Just as tech companies and other brands are scrambling to develop virtual world strategies, many defense startups, contractors and funders are increasingly talking about virtual worlds, even if its definition and purpose are not always clear.

The key technologies required for virtual worlds—augmented and virtual reality, head-mounted displays, 3D simulations, and artificial intelligence-built virtual environments—are already found in the defense world. The result is nowhere near as polished, cute, and spacious as Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for a virtual world, but that’s part of the point. There’s a good chance the underlying technology will take off, even if it has problems in the civilian sector.

The US military is building its own Metaverse

For example, the combination of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and video game graphics enables fighter pilots to practice air combat with virtual opponents (other nations) while pulling several Gs at the same time. Red 6, the company that developed the technology, says it provides a more realistic test of a pilot’s abilities than a traditional flight simulator. “We can fight any threat we want,” said Daniel Robinson, founder and CEO of Red 6. “And the threat can be controlled remotely by an individual, or it can be controlled by artificial intelligence.”

The Red6’s AR technology has to work in more extreme conditions, with lower latency and higher reliability than consumer-grade AR or VR headsets. Robinson added that the company is now developing a platform that will allow many different scenarios to be rendered in augmented or virtual reality. “What we’re building is a real military virtual world,” he said. “It’s like a multiplayer video game in the sky.”

Ideas related to the metaverse have become part of some of the latest military systems. For example, the high-tech helmet of the new F-35 fighter jet includes an augmented reality display that shows telemetry data and targeting information on video footage around the aircraft. In 2018, the U.S. Army announced it would pay Microsoft up to $22 billion to develop a version of the HoloLens augmented reality system for warfighters, the Integrated Vision Augmentation System (IVAS).

In recent years, virtual and augmented reality have become routine aspects of military training. In 2014, USC’s Office of Naval Research and the Institute for Creative Technologies developed Project BlueShark, a system that allows sailors to pilot ships and collaborate in a virtual environment. Another program called “Project Avengers” is now used to help train U.S. Navy pilots. The U.S. Air Force is using VR to teach pilots how to manage aircraft and perform missions. VR is also being used to help treat chronic pain and post-traumatic stress in veterans. Boeing has created an AR environment that lets mechanics practice working on a plane before boarding a real plane.

More recently, the U.S. military has begun exploring more complex virtual worlds. There is also a growing interest in connecting and combining virtual worlds in a way similar to metaverse thinking. In December 2021, the U.S. Air Force held a high-level meeting with more than 250 participants in a virtual environment at various locations from the United States to Japan. “The commitment is to integrate these technologies,” said Caitlin Dohrman, general manager of defense at Improbable, a company developing virtual world technology that has created more than 10,000 individually controlled A massive virtual battlefield for characters, and also in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). “This is an extremely complex simulation, especially given the fidelity the military requires,” Dohrman said. “You can have live players in the simulation, or [characters] can have artificial intelligence enabled, which is usually what the military does.”

Zuckerberg’s decision to go all-in on VR and virtual worlds has raised huge expectations in the business world, said Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, the VR company Facebook bought in 2014. “Everybody on their quarterly company calls, like a week or two later, investors ask them, ‘What’s your metaverse game?’,” he said.

In 2017, Luckey co-founded defense company Anduril. Despite all the virtual universe hype of late, there is still a lot of defensive potential, in part because military training is so important and expensive, he said. But he said the technology doesn’t have to be surreal to be useful, and he wants Anduril to focus on using the technology only when necessary. “Everything we do with VR is better than any other option,” he said. That includes using VR to train people to operate Anduril’s drones, or to display information about an area using data from sensors on the ground, he said.

Like Zuckerberg’s planned metaverse, newer military systems rely heavily on artificial intelligence to function. In October 2020, AR technology developed by Red6 was used to pit real fighter pilots against aircraft controlled by artificial intelligence algorithms developed as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Artificial Intelligence Dogfight program. The AI ​​top gun, created by another startup called EpiSci, learned through a process of trial and error how to outplay its opponents strategically. The AI ​​pilot eventually develops superhuman skills and beats its human counterpart every time.

Another DARPA project, called Perceptual-enabled Task Guidance, aims to create an AI assistant that can observe soldiers’ behavior and offer advice via speech, sound, or graphics. In contrast to augmented reality systems developed by Boeing that work only in specific environments, such systems require understanding of the real world. Bruce Draper, DARPA program director, said the real value of the technology the military is exploring is the fusion of the real and the virtual. “The metaverse is mostly virtual, and virtual worlds are useful for training, but we live in the physical world,” he said. “The military realm is inherently physical, not an abstract metaverse.”

But efforts to fuse the virtual and real worlds have run into problems. In March 2022, a leaked Microsoft memo reportedly revealed that staff working on IVAS, the U.S. Army’s version of the HoloLens AR headset, expected it to receive a strong response from users. A Department of Defense audit released in April 2022 concluded that the Army could be wasting money as a result. Jason Kuruvilla, a senior communications manager at Microsoft, shared several statements from senior military figures touting the potential of IVAS. He also referred to a 2021 Department of Defense report that discusses the importance of rapidly developing IVAS to address issues along the way.

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