Army, USC Join Forces for Virtual Research


Setting the stage for an unprecedented collaboration between the Pentagon and Hollywood, the U.S. Army today will announce the formation of a major research center at USC to develop core technologies that are critical to both the military and to the entertainment industry.

The primary goal of the new Institute for Creative Technologies is to allow the Army to create highly realistic training simulations that rely on advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies. The entertainment industry is expected to use the technology to improve its motion picture special effects, make video games more realistic and create new simulation attractions for virtual reality arcades.

“It’s a marriage made in heaven,” said Anita Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia who first proposed that the military and Hollywood jointly develop key technologies in the mid-1990s when she served as the Defense Department’s director of defense research and engineering.


The Army will spend $45 million on the institute during its first five years, making it the largest research project at USC. Entertainment companies are expected to contribute not only money but also their know-how in everything from computer special effects to storytelling. Altogether, the center could raise enough funds from entertainment companies and government sources to nearly double its budget. The institute could employ more than 200 researchers by the time it is 5 years old, said Cornelius Sullivan, USC’s vice provost for research.

USC was the clear choice to host the center because of its close ties with Hollywood and because of its strength in electrical engineering and computer science, said Cathy Kominos, deputy director of Army research in Crystal City, Va. UCLA and UC Berkeley were also considered to host the institute, but they couldn’t match USC’s rapport with entertainment companies, which will become important partners for the institute, she said.

“That’s what did it,” Kominos said. “We have to work the connections that have been established if we want the entertainment companies to participate.”

But that relationship doesn’t ensure that the collaboration will be entirely smooth. While the military and Hollywood share common research interests, their cultures could hardly be more different.

“That presents a problem,” Jones said. “It makes it difficult to bring the two communities together.”

When Paramount began working with the Defense Department in 1996 on a project in which military officers made national security decisions based on simulated briefings, it took a full year for each side to understand the other, said Richard Lindheim, executive vice president of Paramount Television Group in Los Angeles.


But now Lindheim said he is looking forward to expanding his partnership with the military through the new center.

“It allows us to do research and development, which is not something a Hollywood studio is generally involved in,” he said.

John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, praised the Army’s approach to leveraging technology from private industry.

“The fact that our soldiers are well-trained is one of the key edges that the American military has,” Pike said. “Anything they can do to sustain that edge is a good thing, and anything that they can do to train inexpensively using simulations rather than having to train expensively by being out in the field using up gas and ammo is a good thing.”

Though the $45-million commitment is big money for USC, “it’s peanuts for the Army,” said Michael Zyda, a professor of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. If the institute wants to attract key talent from Hollywood--where $45 million is less than the average cost of a studio movie--then “I think the Army needs to boost it up,” he said.

The center will draw heavily on the expertise of USC’s School of Engineering, which operates the Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey and houses the Integrated Media Systems Center, the National Science Foundation’s research center for multimedia. The School of Cinema-Television will participate directly and through its Entertainment Technology Center, which will serve as a liaison to the Hollywood community. The Annenberg School for Communication will also play a significant role.


Some of the core technology the Institute for Creative Technologies will develop:

* Artificial intelligence to create digital characters for military simulations that respond to situations like real people.

* Computer networks that can run simulations with hundreds--or even thousands--of participants who are spread around the globe.

* Technologies to create immersive environments for simulations, ranging from better head-mounted displays to force-feedback devices to surround-sound audio systems.

In addition, experts from USC’s School of Cinema-Television will help the creators of military simulations develop better story lines that are believable and engaging.

“We would like to make our training much more realistic,” said William Bond, commanding general of the Army’s Simulation Training Instrumentation Command in Orlando, Fla. “We want the ability to create a state where the soldier feels this is so real that he actually perspires, his heart rate goes up, and he reacts in a manner that is consistent with what he would do in a real environment.”

Many of the key technologies are already being developed. As a faster, safer and cheaper substitute for large-scale military exercises, researchers at USC’s Information Sciences Institute are building a helicopter simulation in which virtual pilots use artificial intelligence to plan and carry out an attack on enemy tanks. The virtual pilots control their own speed, direction and altitude and decide when to fire laser-guided missiles.


The digital pilots are also programmed with “social knowledge,” so that they understand how their own roles fit in with the larger goal of the mission. If the commander is shot down, the other pilots can decide on a new course of action, said Randall Hill, a project leader at ISI who is also a West Point graduate and Army veteran.

Real helicopter pilots could practice training maneuvers by flying with the virtual pilots in a simulation exercise. Helicopter commanders could also train for combat by testing different strategies with a virtual helicopter fleet.

In addition to wartime exercises, the simulations could also help prepare troops for peacekeeping missions. In one example, a soldier would begin with an online course about the history and culture of the area. Then he would enter a virtual reality world and find himself surrounded by locals speaking an unfamiliar language. A virtual guide would lead him through the town square and answer questions.

Suddenly, the soldier would hear a large explosion about a block away. Though he might expect to find enemy forces and be quick to draw his rifle, the commotion could turn out to be a wedding reception with celebratory firecrackers.

“You’re not just wandering aimlessly” through the virtual world, said Bill Swartout, director of ISI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “There’s a point to the story that it’s trying to teach you.”

For its part, the entertainment industry will be able to use the new and improved technology to reduce the cost of motion picture and television production by expanding the use of virtual sets, produce better special effects and create more realistic digital actors that can substitute for humans during dangerous stunts, said Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s School of Cinema-Television. Video game companies could put the technology to use to make more sophisticated villains, improve their animation quality and build games that can accommodate thousands of players simultaneously, she said.


The notion of combining the research strengths of Hollywood and the military arose several years ago, when Jones and others in the defense community noticed that video games and movie special effects were more engaging than military simulations.