Soldiers running a simulation in a Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer at Fort Riley, Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

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With the help of technological advancements by commercial gaming companies, the military’s virtual reality training programs are getting realer than ever. U.S. Army soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division as well as visitors from the 4th Infantry Division and the U.S. Marines have been testing and assessing a prototype training system for realism and functionality at Fort Riley this week.

They’re testing what are called Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainers. The trainers are prototype systems designed to simulate actual military vehicles for use in group training missions in virtual reality up to the battalion level.

The set-ups are designed to be more portable and cheaper as well as easier to re-program than current units. The system can be reconfigured to replicate the controls of Humvees, Strykers and M1 Abrams tanks and more. Trainees can also wear haptic gloves that simulate sensations they may feel in the simulated scenario, like the click of a radio dial.

The training was overseen members of the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team in conjunction with the developers, Bohemia Interactive Simulations. Based in Orlando, Florida, the STE-CFT is one of eight cross functional teams which are intended to speed up the production of new systems.

“We have assets right up front from the testing community — the users, the people that write requirements, everybody’s in one team right up front,” says STE-CFT Army Program Manager William Sanchez. “From the very beginning we start doing technical assessments so we provide feedback to the contractor right away on the fly and they keep pivoting, they keep changing if needed.”

Soldiers simulating the operation of an M1 Abrams tank in a Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer at Fort Riley, Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

Sanchez says contractors often have to build all of their systems from the ground up, but gaming technology is clearing the way. They’ve been through three iterations of heads-up displays in the past 9 months just using upgrades in commercially available technology, saving money in research and development. If something breaks, they can pull it off the shelf rather than manufacture a new one.

“Some of the feedback they give us are things like ‘hey, this steering doesn’t act like the steering on the vehicle I drive every day’ or ‘hey, the brakes — I have to push them harder’,” says Patti Bielling, director of communication for the STE-CFT. “So that kind of stuff will create in the end a more realistic trainer.”

Bohemia Technical Sales Support Specialist Kevin Killoran says platoon leaders can dictate what scenarios they want to train and that the software is so reconfigurable they can review a simulation in an after-action review within minutes.

“What makes this [system]very unique is they’re using a cohesive, modern image generator that includes the entire earth,” says Killoran. “Now we can go anywhere in the world, train anywhere and the U.S. Army can feed any data they get into the system and train there with minimal effort.”

Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais is the director of the Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team. She says its important to have soldiers at an early stage “using it and telling us ‘no, this is not good, this is how it needs to be,’ because at the end of the day it needs to meet their needs and it needs to be value added.”

KMAN caught up with Sgt. E.J. Genzano, who has been testing the system all week and says the graphics stuck out to him as an improvement.

“I like where they’re going,” says Genzano. “It’s small and compact to where we don’t have to go to a building to do it.”

Master Sgt. Nicholas Harris says he can see how it will have an impact on being able to get necessary repetition in to build the muscle memory needed to do their jobs.

“They’re doing simulated training so we’re not taking them out there to the field to spend that money on the food and the fuel,” says Harris. “We’ve got them in a simulated environment where they can do iteration after iteration until they feel comfortable.”

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