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Army takes a flier on OpenSim

Training center deploys alpha version of open source project to build Second-Life style virtual world grid

By Maria Korolov, Network World
March 25, 2013 06:09 AM ET

Network World - The U.S. Army is not new to using simulated virtual environments for training. In fact, almost all soldiers have used virtual simulations, according to Douglas Maxwell, the science and technology manager for virtual world strategic applications at the Army's Simulation & Training Technology Center in Orlando.

The problem is that, for the most part, each individual simulation is designed with a specific purpose - and it can take months of development, and require the combined efforts of subject matter experts, instructional designers, 3D artists and developers.

"You do one unit of training, in one software simulation, and you move on," he says. "I wanted to create a general-purpose trainer, with persistence in-world. You log in and start where you left off from."

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A few years ago, the military discovered Second Life, where users without any professional modeling or development background can quickly and cheaply create unique interactive environments through a combination of easy-to-use in-world building tools, and a wealth of ready-to-use, inexpensive virtual world content like buildings, vehicles, weapons, clothing and terrains.

"It was a radical departure from the way we were normally doing training," Maxwell says. "It had a lot of potential."

Second Life itself, however, wasn't a practical option. The military needed a secure platform, one that could run completely behind the firewall, with access restricted to only approved personnel.

The Simulation & Training Technology Center turned to OpenSim, an open-source project that allows anyone with a server to host a Second Life-style virtual world grid. Work began in 2010 and, today, the Army's MOSES grid is about 3,000 square acres of virtual land, or about 4.5 square miles, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, login credentials and a virtual worlds viewer. Currently, a separate, standalone viewer such as Firestorm is necessary to access OpenSim grids, Second Life, and most other virtual environments but as HTML 5 support improves, browser-based access will become possible.

MOSES, which stands for Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy, is a shared environment used not only by the military, but also by approved outside training experts and virtual world developers. The programming is done by a mix of Army civilian employees, such as Maxwell himself, and contractors who create the 3D mesh models. A total of 50 people have worked on content development for MOSES and on the Unreal 3-based project, EDGE (Enhanced Dynamic GeoSocial Environment). The two projects can use the same content, since 3d mesh models can be uploaded to both platforms.

It is used to design training simulations for soldiers, to hold virtual meetings, and to expand the potential uses of the virtual world technology. "I'm really impressed with OpenSimulator," Maxwell says. "For being an open source project, you get a tremendous amount of capability."

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