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Playing Long-Distance Virtual War Games


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a conversation with photographer Julius Shulman.

Mr. JULIUS SHULMAN (Photographer): I never met an architect before in my life. I became an architectural photographer.

CHADWICK: Maybe you've seen his best-known photograph of a glass house on a hillside here in Los Angeles. We have an interview, coming up.

First, this. The new Xbox 360 is not the only video game system in high demand this season. At a recent trade show in Orlando, representatives from the military, police departments, even foreign governments were inspecting the latest in virtual reality simulators. These super video game systems have a serious purpose. Christopher Elliott visited the show and filed this report.

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For the serious video gamer, these toys are a cut above Xbox.

Mr. MIKE RILEY (Raydon Corporation): When you put on the helmets in the virtual reality, you're there. Baghdad is in 360 degrees around you and you're submerged within it.

ELLIOTT: That's Mike Riley with Raydon Corporation. He's demonstrating a virtual convoy trainer.

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ELLIOTT: It allows several troops to train together; a driver, commander, ring-mount gunner and a crew station. For added reality, it's all done inside the shell of a modified Humvee. The aim of this technology is to make the experience as realistic as possible, says Laurent Scallie, the founder of Atlantis Cyberspace.

Mr. LAURENT SCALLIE (Founder, Atlantis Cyberspace): Literally, with the head-mount display, you can look up, see the sky, turn around, see behind you. We've got force-feedback vests so you can feel impact. You have virtual reality gloves so you can do hand signals and arm signals and rub objects in the virtual world. You've got a steering wheel; you can drive vehicles. So you're really in the synthetic world.

ELLIOTT: Scallie's showing off a row of pods that look like "Star Trek" teleporters. People wearing VR goggles, gloves and vests are training for an exercise. The Atlantis unit can connect up to 64 soldiers at once in a real-time training exercise. They don't even have to be in the same place; It's all done across a network. John Williams, the spokesman for the organization that sponsors this show, says the technology has a lot of uses.

Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS (Organization Spokesman): It has implications across many fields, from medical technology to first-responders to law enforcement and, of course, to military. Any situation that is difficult or dangerous to duplicate in real life can now be replicated in these environments.

ELLIOTT: But nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like a 360-degree firearms simulation.

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ELLIOTT: Picture yourself in a darkened room surrounded by enormous projection screens. Snipers are firing at you. It's IMAX for Marines, says Kelly Jones, the chief executive of VirTra System, which developed the simulator.

Mr. KELLY JONES (Chief Executive, VirTra System): The systems start around a hundred thousand dollars and go all the way up to about a half a million dollars, depending on the components and the types of weapons and specialized scenarios that the organization might want.

ELLIOTT: In fact, most of these virtual reality systems, these synthetic worlds, cost six figures, if not seven figures a pop; quite a bit more than your average PlayStation. So who exactly would buy one at that price? Paul Sanders would.

Mr. PAUL SANDERS: Very impressed. Very impressed.

ELLIOTT: Sanders is shopping for new training systems for Britain's Royal Air Force. He hasn't seen anything he wants to buy yet, but says he's keeping an open mind and collecting a little intel.

Mr. SANDERS: We're trying to stay on top of what's going on in cutting-edge thinking, and this is the place to be for that.

ELLIOTT: But is all this necessary? Bob Stone is a research director for Britain's Ministry of Defense. He says it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the useful applications from the useless ones.

Mr. BOB STONE (Research Director, British Ministry of Defense): This is all very sexy and glamorous, but I wonder how many of these people have actually thought about the needs and the capabilities and the limitations of the human who's got to use this stuff? And I would bet you a lot of money that's very few.

ELLIOTT: The shoppers at this video game conference acknowledged that some of the synthetic worlds have little in common with the real world, but that didn't bother delegates like Pat Melton of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Ms. PAT MELTON (Florida Department of Law Enforcement): They have to make instant decisions regarding life and death, and this kind of technology can better prepare them to do that.

ELLIOTT: Melton says some of the systems here could someday save the lives of police officers she helps train. And to get there, she's willing to put up with a few bells and whistles. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Elliott in Orlando.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Elliott