Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vistech 2005: Thoughts on the military industrial game complex

I gave a talk at a tradeshow called Vistech earlier this week. With all the traveling and attending talks my posts have been coming slower than I would like. Thanks to everyone who keeps visiting the site even after the Nintendogs story dropped off Slashdot and Kotaku. :-)

Vistech is a brand new show by Halldale that I would classify as 'Serious Games for the Military'. The military talks are always intriguing because they are solving problems with game technology in ways that are quite different than your typical game developer.

There is also some weird freaky shit out there. If you ever get invited to a real talk about improving the 'kill chain', run and hide. I didn't know this, but a kill chain is very much like a supply chain in business. Except where a supply chain delivers boxes of shoes to Walmart, the kill chain delivers enemy bodies...Efficiently and with the least amount of thinking required. Applying the scientific process to war activities is a long standing tradition, but it still gives me the shivers.

Here are some fun technology trends...

Good trends that I found interesting
  • Hybrid systems (aka Augmented reality): The ultimate goal of many folks is get to the point where the virtual simulated world is placed on top of what the pilot is seeing out the aircraft window. In a normal aircraft, the pilot would look out and see trees. In a hybrid aircraft, the pilot would look out the window and see a tank blinking in the trees. The tank is completely virtual and is based on a momentary sighting 5 minutes ago by a drone. Its current position is extrapolated from an AI algorithm that is used to plot its potential course.

    Combine the data from hundreds of aircraft, infantry, sensors, etc with satellite data and that little window out the cockpit becomes a highly illuminated, data rich environment. In twenty years, this technology will start making its way into the commercial world. Software tends towards commodity pricing so the only thing keeping this back in the long term will be hardware and display costs.
  • Ladar scanning: The single biggest problem facing the use of 3D in serious applications is the cost of producing meaningful 3D information. At Anark, we rely primarily on CAD data because of the huge repositories deep inside manufacturing companies. Other folks are looking at ways to rapidly scan large scenes with a laser system (or photographs). Drive down a street and get a multi-terabyte point cloud model complete with color and all the little details.

    In 10 years or so, this will turn into 3D photography. You won't model anything from scratch. Instead, you'll whip out your special 3D camera and capture a massively high resolution model that is then post processed to run on 3D hardware. The part that excites me is the inevitable creation of "3D photoshop". That will be sweet.
Bad trends
  • Recycling game engines: We are at such an early stage of transferring game technology over to other sectors, that the primary method evident is outright theft. Grab the Unreal engine, slap a new mod on it, and call it an Army game. This works for a small set of problems. It doesn't work for many other problems (for example, ones that don't involve shooting people)

    The 'stealing phase' of technology adoption is common and inevitable. My worry is that this becomes the primary mode of dealing with game technology. We need to open our eyes to the broader possibilities. Rip out all the guns, and look at a physics system, a 3D engine and all that lovely networking code as a tool kit. Find a problem and apply the tool kit. I suspect that if you do your job well, you'll come up with an application that is very effective, but looks nothing like a FPS.
  • Small size of events: Games have been around for a while. The problems that game technology helps solve has been around for a while. Yet there were only a page full of names attending this conference. They are the forward thinkers, the visionaries. Very cool, but the industry cannot grow with visionaries alone. I look forward to the day when the accountants, middle managers and people on the front line come to conferences such as Vistech because it is pertinent to their jobs.

    I have hope. The Serious Games Summit keeps doubling in size each year. New shows like Vistech and the Synergy Summit are popping up. With any new industry, it is simply a matter of time and momentum. We have the later, but I'm an impatient fellow.
take care


  1. This is interesting stuff...

    Who would've thought that Orson Scott Card writer of Ender's Game was right, when he wrote a sci-fi novel about a kid who plays a game and... ooops... is that a spoiler?

    Also I think it's clear that despite the game industry's attempts to keep it its own dirty little secret, that violent videogames DO blur the distinction between reality and virtual reality, to a degree more than apologists would like to admit.

    A recently released study of the physiological effects of violent videogames on the brain was just published, and wouldn't you know it, it appears that the same reactions that the brain goes through in cases of actual trauma, and simulated trauma is indistinguishable! The implications here are clearly in need of further evaluation, but the thought is disturbing. If your mind has killed in FPS virtual worlds, how does that affect our ability for restraint in the real one?

    It's only a matter of time before simulated violence is mapped directly to physical violence...

    What is the social impact of a world in which games are indistinguishable from reality?

    Some people already live this way, all things are a game, and people are merely objects in a game to be manipulated...


    PS> Begs other interesting questions, like what's the inevitable end in regards to simulated game sex?

  2. Grab the Unreal engine, slap a new mod on it, and call it an Army game. This works for a small set of problems. It doesn't work for many other problems (for example, ones that don't involve shooting people)

    Uhm, actually, Unreal and similar engines don't really work for shooting people, either. I remember listening to one of the military guys talk at the first Serious Games Summit back in '04. He was making the distinction between military games and video games: the former attempts to simulate combat, the latter will take shortcuts for entertainment. Shooting someone with a pistol in Unreal is an instantaneous thing: there's not even a physical bullet being modelled. Problems like that add to the list of reasons why proprietary entertainment engines need to be evaluated carefully before being applied to a given problem.

  3. There is certainly more than just skinning a few models. There are adjustments to gameplay systems and new systems added as well. Some of the instrumentation / logging work that is being done by America's Army is a wonderful addition to the training problems people are facing.

    The way the process is described to me is
    - Take a $5 million game
    - Make $100k of modifications
    - Release the result as a training tool.

    Many games these days support a good amount of the technologies that you need for team-based tactical training. Certain groups in the military work closely with game developers to ensure that there is a good match between the commercial titles and the military versions of the titles.

    More than anything, I was commenting on the need to move beyond this. When you repurpose a FPS to create another FPS, that is merely the first step in adapting a technology to a new industry. A good step, but let's not get stuck there as an industry.

    take care