Virtually There

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, any place anywhere can be modeled and used for training online.

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, any place anywhere can be modeled and used for training online.

Bart Bartlett, a military officer, drives me past a dead dog on a Baghdad street. "Is there an IED in that dog?" I ask. "Let's see," he says, parking the white SUV and hopping out. Almost immediately, there is an explosion. Black smoke obscures the view. Bartlett is knocked to the ground, probably dead.

Fortunately, he's only an avatar, a digital representation of David Bartlett, director of marketing and business development for the national security division of Forterra Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that creates private online virtual worlds for companies and government agencies.

Bart Bartlett resembles David right down to the moustache because he was created from a scan of the real man, a former Marine officer who spent 23 years in aviation and program management for the Marine Corps and the Defense Department. For four years, Bartlett the man bought flight simulators for the Marines. The last four years of his Marine career were spent as chief of operations for the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office. He also worked for Silicon Graphics, the high-end computing firm out of Sunnyvale, Calif., and as senior director of modeling, simulation and analysis in the federal division of Arlington, Va.-based contractor CACI.

Bart and I weren't in Baghdad, by the way, but in a virtual replica of a part of the Green Zone. In Forterra's Baghdad, the buildings are geospecific-they are where they really are on the streets, but they aren't exact replicas; instead, they are geotypical, Bartlett says. Virtual Baghdad is part of the Asymmetric Warfare-Virtual Training Technology, a platform Forterra is building under contract to the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command. The training ground will host unconventional warfare operations.

It's still eerie riding shotgun in the SUV on the empty, desolate streets of the infamous Iraqi city. Across the Euphrates, the other side of town is visible. The dun-colored buildings and occasional wreckage mirror so many news photos. Enter a sheik's home and there he is, speaking Arabic and gesturing angrily at any slight by the culturally maladroit Americans. The discomfort is intentional; it's a learning game, after all, and the more immersed the players, the better.

That's where the actors come in. Forterra hires them from around the world to be on call to "play" avatars during exercises because it's when the checkpoint goes live in the virtual Green Zone that the real engagement begins. "The National Training Center has 300 role players and whole Iraqi villages set up. It's cheaper for them to just jump into a virtual world," Bartlett says. His company isn't creating worlds as backgrounds for first-person shooter games; its worlds host soldiers, medical personnel, first responders or corporate staffers. The goal isn't to tote up kills and avoid being killed. Instead, Forterra creates sandboxes where people learn to interact, be they members of a military squad, a public health care team or firefighters and police officers.

Go to the on-screen teleporting dropdown menu and choose "hospital," for example, and your avatar is transported to the entrance of a replica of Stanford Medical Center in California. No one's around just now, but inside, taped to the exact-copy walls, are the handwritten signs directing emergency teams to triage locations for various degrees of wounds. They're leftovers from a recent disaster recovery exercise held in-world.

Bartlett, an old hand in the world of weapons system simulators, explains the allure of virtual exercises. They are affordable, he says, much cheaper than elaborate flight or vehicle simulators, vastly cheaper than destroying real equipment or firing live ammunition on ranges. They offer distributed learning-trainees can sit at any laptop or PC with Internet access, and connect with others anywhere else to train. They are collaborative, based on many years of experience with multiplayer video games. "You can jump in-world after you've practiced a mission," he says.

"You can bring in guys just back from Iraq and plug in localized sites. The worlds can be set up based on where wars are." The enemies aren't powered by artificial intelligence; they are real people, and you share a cockpit, Humvee, convoy or seize a piece of Baghdad with your real buddies. In fact, Forterra was built in 1998 from a popular social networking site called There.

Gartner, the well-regarded information technology consulting firm headquartered in Stamford, Conn., released a report in April predicting that 80 percent of Internet users and Fortune 500 enterprises will be participating in virtual worlds by 2011. Today, the best known such world is Linden Labs' Second Life; many organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, have virtual islands in Second Life. The National Defense University is trying to set up a consortium to establish a larger federal presence there. But Second Life increasingly has been troubled by anarchists and malcontents disrupting virtual press conferences, defacing virtual buildings and setting off virtual bombs.

"Enterprises may be better served by taking advantage of custom, private 'closed' worlds to fill specific requirements," Gartner advised. "Such systems are already used by the U.S. military and other commercial enterprises. Companies such as Forterra Systems have developed customized immersive environments for a wide range of uses," the report says.

Indeed, Forterra is in talks with intelligence agencies and recently struck a $1.4 million deal with the CIA's technology incubator, In-Q-Tel.

There's also an engagement with the Homeland Security Department in the works. With intelligence agencies, Forterra is working to let analysts collaborate using digital mapping and online communications so they can "be with the data in a virtual environment," Bartlett says.

The company also is working with others on the Holy Grail, networking the different virtual world simulations of all the military services. "In the future, your tank simulation is in a virtual world. Your avatar jumps in, and you look to the left and your pal's avatar is driving. You see what your avatar sees," he says. "It's Web-enabled, so you can download 3-D maps of cities, and take a battalion and network it with a group already in, say, Korea and train up and drive around key areas together.

"It's about your training requirement. If you need to train with the British, you can do it with real aircraft in a virtual world," says Bartlett. "It's about the human unpredictability. I can beat the artificial intelligence, but I don't know what the human is going to do."

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