Press Release

Here comes the holodeck: VR + AI = new training tool

By SpaceRef Editor
May 9, 2001
Filed under ,

I agents used to create challenging and unpredictable VR training exercises

The use of virtual reality or arcade games to practice hand-eye
coordination or quick reaction, or even to teach factual information is
easy to understand and well accepted. But can such techniques also teach
sound judgement and clear thinking in an emergency?

New programs developed by the University of Southern California’s
Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and two other cooperating USC
institutes are designed to do just this by melding advances in artificial
intelligence with state of the art work in rendering virtual environments
in animation and sound.

A “Mission Rehearsal Exercise” developed for the U.S. Army by ISI, the USC
Institute for Creative Technology (ICT), and the USC Integrated Media
Systems Center (IMSC) takes soldier-trainees on a virtual reality mission
in a troubled town in Bosnia. There, they must deal with a situation
threatening to spin out of control.

It uses a movie-theater-sized (8 -feet tall, 31-foot wide) curved screen
that looms around trainees. Combining with the screen images is highly
directional and lifelike “immersive sound,” creating a convincing illusion
of being present at the scene, rather than observing a show.

The scene is populated with animated figures that exist only as computer
programs, but are nevertheless autonomous agents who can interact with
human trainees in real time.

An article about the Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRE) program appeared in
the documentation for AAAI Spring Symposium on Artificial Intelligence and
Interactive Entertainment, at Stanford University March 26-28 2001. Presentation of another paper, along with partial demonstration of the system is scheduled for the Agents 2001 conference in Montreal, Que. May 28-June 1, 2001.

The army simulation is an early attempt to reach toward the “holodeck,” the
virtual reality training and recreation facility seen in “Star Trek: The
Next Generation,” according to project leader Jeff Rickel of ISI.

In one simulation scenario, a lieutenant enters the village to deal with
one problem — a weapons inspection team being threatened by an angry crowd
— and finds another one as well: an American jeep has accidentally struck
and injured a local child.

Should the lieutenant split his forces to deal with both situations? If so,
how? Meanwhile, a TV camera crew arrives, further complicating the

The scene of the village uses 3-D computer modeling to create basic shapes
visible from any angle enhanced by texture mapping. The group used
commercial software from Boston Dynamics to add animations of people, and
an extremely sophisticated sound system — with multiple sound tracks (up
to 64 tracks for some effects) played through no less than 12 speaker
channels. Chris Kyriakakis of the IMSC created this system.

Two kinds of autonomous software agents inhabit this complex and convincing
environment. Most are basic robotic programs that carry on a limited range
of pre-scripted, routinized behavior — milling in the background, standing
around, etc.

Three — the detachment medic and sergeant, and the anxious mother — are
more complex. These are software actors who have substantial abilities to
react to what the trainee does. Their faces change expression, thanks to
software from the Santa Cruz, CA-based Haptek Corporation. They move, and
most strikingly, they can respond to speech.

Scripted characters are relatively easy to create, explains Rickel, “but
have limited flexibility, making them well suited for bit parts.” AI
characters are more difficult to program, but can interact with people and
with their environment in more flexible ways, making them well suited for
key roles such as the mother, sergeant, and medic, who all have to interact
with the human lieutenant.

Research by Rickel and his colleagues, who also include Jonathan Gratch,
Randall Hill, and William Swartout of ICT and Stacy Marsella of ISI, has
built on earlier work at ISI by Rickel and W. Lewis Johnson developing a
teaching agent called “Steve.”

Steve instructed Navy recruits in a virtual-reality world presented through
VR glasses, responding to their simple questions. The Sergeant and the
Medic are more advanced versions of Steve. Steve’s appearance has been
updated from the legless floating presence in the early version to a more
lifelike form.

The third AI character, the Mother, adds another layer: she goes beyond
words to the expression of emotions. Gratch and Marsella were responsible
for this feature.

Another major addition to the Steve agent is the use of a dramatic story
line, with continuing incidents driving the action. To keep score at the
end, a television story reported by the news crew on the scene records the
result of the trainee’s responses to the situation, chronicling either an
abandoned boy in critical condition, or a boy out of danger because of
timely action.

“The work we have done in one way shows how far away the holodeck is — but
in another shows how useful it may be,” Rickel said. “The project
represents a grand challenge for both AI and virtual reality, but the
potential payoff is a powerful new medium for experiential learning.”

“What makes the Mission Rehearsal Exercise project unique is that we are
bringing together for the first time a set of technologies including
immersive audio, large scale graphics, and virtual humans and linking them
to an interactive story line to create a compelling experience.” added
William Swartout of the ICT.

“The synergies that result are powerful. We were surprised to find that
even though the system is still at its beginnings, some people came away
from the simulation emotionally moved. I don’t think this effect is due to
any one element alone, but rather it is due to all of them working

Contact: Eric Mankin


University of Southern California

SpaceRef staff editor.