Soldier insights drive Army’s development of mixed-reality training system

On a mid-August afternoon in central Texas, Soldiers in combat uniform gather together, preparing to engage in realistic battlefield training.

With temperatures outside approaching the high 90s, one might expect the upcoming drill, situated amid a flat and dusty expanse at Fort Hood, to verge on the sweltering.

Instead, this particular group of Soldiers is training inside the walls of the post’s Close Combat Tactical Training Center, surrounded by the steady hum of computers and a reliable flow of cool air conditioning.

The center, which facilitates state-of-the-art virtual collective training for warfighters, is hosting approximately 150 Soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort Carson, Colorado, this month as part of an operational assessment led by the US Army Test and Evaluation Command.

Approximately 150 Soldiers from installations in Texas and Colorado are taking part in the Synthetic Training Environment Information System and Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer operational assessment at Fort Hood, Texas, this August. The multi-week event is being led by the US Army Test and Evaluation Command’s Operational Test Command (OTC), which adheres to the motto “Truth in Testing.” Data collected during the assessment will inform Army decision-making; “This data matters for the success of this system,” said Maj. Raquel Jimenez of the OTC’s Mission Command Test Directorate.

The purpose of the assessment is to understand how Soldiers interact with the newest software and hardware iterations of the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment, or STE, a capability that blends virtual, live and collective training elements to produce an immersive experience that is location-agile and minimizes use of real firepower and other typically costly, one-time-use training resources.

Undergoing analysis at the event are two elements of the broader STE, the Information System, shortened STE-IS, and the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer, or RVCT.

The STE-IS is an intelligent suite of training simulation and management software that supports intuitive access and simultaneous training at multiple locations. The STE-IS also encompasses One World Terrain, a 3D mapping dataset that allows training coordinators to integrate actual terrain imagery from around the globe.

The RVCT is a highly adaptable hardware system that connects to the STE-IS to activate collective, mixed-reality training scenarios. The RVCT consists of high-tech, interactive equipment — including a heads-up display, high-resolution monitor and representational controllers — that enables Soldiers, squads, platoons and companies to navigate exercises using actual and computer-generated movements.

Army photograph by Anthony Sualog
Sgt. Adrian Ceballos, left, and fellow Soldiers carry out dismounted maneuvers using individual laptops as part of a collective training exercise during the Synthetic Training Environment operational assessment at Fort Hood, Texas, on Aug. 17, 2022.

The STE-IS-powered family of RVCT systems is capable of replicating key aviation and ground platforms; The Fort Hood event is focused on RVCT ground models that can replicate Abrams, Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles, as well as dismounted infantry.

Sgt. Adrian Ceballos, who traveled to the STE-IS and RVCT assessment from Colorado, shared that he was “pretty surprised and overwhelmed” by the advances in training technology.

“It’s pretty accurate, for what the details are,” he said.

“I did not think we were this far ahead.”

Ceballos sees the STE prototypes and the increased training options they afford as playing an advantageous role in assessing and improving Soldier knowledge, capabilities and preparedness.

Beyond testing out the new equipment, Soldiers like Ceballos are providing critical feedback and data to STE development teams on the utility of the existing software and hardware and how it could be tweaked to portray in-person combat with greater realism.

Army photograph by Anthony Sualog
Spec. Hunter Buss, right, pictured at Fort Hood, Texas, on Aug. 17, 2022, provided feedback on the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer’s dismounted functionality, stressing that the ability to form precise formations on screen could improve the program’s verisimilitude.

Soldiers participating in the assessment readily offer ideas on how to enhance current systems, such as by varying the volume of sound effects and making simulated movements smoother.

Spec. Hunter Buss of Fort Bliss noted that the on-screen motions of avatars appeared “glitchy” at times, but that being able to view and virtually trek across different terrain was useful.

Initial insights emerging from the Soldier feedback process were shared with army leaders, including Lt. Gen. Maria R. Gervais, Deputy Commanding General and Chief of Staff of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, during a distinguished visitor day held at the Close Combat Training Center on Aug. 17, 2022.

Col. Cory Berg, Project Manager Soldier Training at the US Army Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI, explained during the program that part of the STE’s uniqueness lies in its ability to “capitalize on communally available equipment and capabilities.”

Col. Nick Kioutas, Project Manager Synthetic Environment at PEO STRI, emphasizing that the Army will “also be able to exploit the new technologies in gaming” as it advances the STE with the help of industry partners.

“Agile means we’re constantly pivoting to get what the Soldier needs,” Kioutas said, underscoring the importance of being able to nimbly adjust versatile STE systems to meet rapidly changing operational and training demands.

“We want to keep evolving this as we move forward,” said Col. Mike McCarthy of the of the STE Cross-Functional Team, an Army Futures Command modernization accelerator that assists the Army with defining and coordinating STE requirements.

Army photograph by Anthony Sualog
Brig. Gen. William R. Glaser, Director of the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment (STE) Cross-Functional Team, speaks with Soldiers participating in a STE operational assessment at Fort Hood, Texas. Glaser and other Army leaders participated in a distinguished visitors day at Fort Hood on Aug. 17, 2022, that included an opportunity to observe the assessment in action and receive an overview of the Army’s timeline for finalizing and fielding STE prototype systems.

McCarthy highlighted how the STE’s intentional use of a Modular Open Systems Approach has helped to maximize the ease-of-use, efficiency and adaptability of the equipment under development.

Also in attendance at the event was Brig. Gen. William R. Glaser, Director of the STE Cross-Functional Team, who saw clear benefits in documenting the reactions and suggestions of Soldiers trying out the nascent equipment.

He explained that the STE Cross-Functional Team provides abbreviated capability development documents, and capabilities and limitations to operational assessment teams in order to guide their focus while simultaneously confirming the accuracy and feasibility of outlined requirements.

“This is an effort in progress,” Glaser said, adding that the collaborative assessment serves as an invaluable opportunity for army modernization and training stakeholders to “check our math and make sure that we’re headed in the right direction.”

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