Hollywood animation enhancing survival training

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mary McHale
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Instructors at the U.S. Air Force Survival School here are incorporating Hollywood-style animation techniques into programs used to train students in such skills as navigation and surviving underwater aircraft accidents.

Six years in development, this newest training technology will allow students to "virtually experience" a wide array of terrains and circumstances they may encounter not readily accessible or practical through conventional training methods.

Student critiques indicated there was not enough time to learn navigation skills using daytime and nighttime sky applications in the field, so the staff created an environmental learning lab, a unique planetarium-like dome to display not only a celestial environments, but also a variety of environmental scenes, from day to night, to mountains to sea. In this simulator, each seat's arm is equipped with responder devices so students can answer instructor's questions or respond to the scenes during the course of instruction.

"Learning needs to be fun," said Mike Young, training technology flight chief for the 336th Training Support Squadron here. "And this way, it's so interactive, students are in control of their learning so they'll retain it better and that's crucial to learning survival skills. They'll be able to see things on screen they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to."

That is where the flight's media department has focused its creative energy. They have animated various scenarios using the same kind of three-dimensional computer technology used in the films "Final Fantasy" and "Shrek."

One scenario they created displays a downed helicopter underwater, complete with swimming sharks, and the pilot going through proper procedures of climbing in the raft, taking flares out and spreading sea marker dye.

"We want to get the students really immersed in the situation," said Young. "The imagery is very detailed, bubbles coming out of a cracked tail, seaweed and fish. It's like sticking your head underwater in a swimming pool."

The 3000-watt sound system includes six powerful speakers around the environmental lab.

The imagery and sound surround the students, 360 degrees.

"They can hear 'Jaws' swimming around the chopper, the surf above them," said Young. "They can even see the bottom of a 12-man raft, how the water's surface looks from underneath."

The crux of training with technology, according to Young, is to help instructors do virtually what they can't do in reality. While they can't crash a real helicopter underwater for training, this technology enlivens an event that could happen and pins down details of how to cope with it.

"They tell us what they need and we create it here, from scratch," said Rodney Kern, one of four multimedia animators. "Our capability to generate any scenario is unlimited."

One piece of equipment the animators use to help them transfer reality to digital data is known as the "motion capture suit." Whatever actions an individual takes while wearing the suit can eventually be transformed into a technological tutorial. For example, an instructor might demonstrate building a shelter or vectoring aircraft to a particular position so the animators can render the image into a "virtual instructor" to include in the presentation.

Young said the initial outlay for the lab has run about $2.75 million.

"But, you can't put a price tag on saving someone's life," he said.

Young said the media flight is still in the process of building the animation products and estimates the lab will be ready for students in 2003.

The environmental familiarization lab is part of a technological triad Young and his staff are putting together. The other parts of the triad include computer-based training for the basic survival course and classified satellite uplinks and downlinks for distance learning to continue training for survival school graduates.

"With computer-based training, students will be able to finish their academics while at their home station," said Young. "Instructors will be able to monitor course work."

Young said the computer-based training will be based on Internet gaming and provide a truly interactive environment, including student chat rooms and chat rooms for instructor feedback. "Most CBT consists of hitting the 'next' button to get to another page. It's boring. We are making our model as interactive as we can."

Through satellite links, the school will be able to provide continuing education for survival graduates throughout the world.

"We can put an expert here on our stage to give subject and task knowledge information. Everyone with a link can see the instructor, and every location will have microphones for students to ask questions," he said.

Additional future applications could include "just-time-learning" for aircrews before going into harm's way, based on the environmental learning lab and classified satellite links.