'FlatWorld' gives Marines a taste of chaos

Marines to immerse troops in new virtual training course.

Camp Pendleton, home of push-ups and pugil sticks, will now offer a three-dimensional, virtual-reality immersion training course complete with smoke, explosions and the wail of the Muezzin to give U.S. Marines a taste of what they're in for.

U.S. Navy

Known as "FlatWorld," the course is an in-depth blend of stagecraft and high tech created by the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. Choosing the bureaucratic vernacular of the Pentagon, the Marines call it the "Infantry Immersive Trainer." Whatever the name, it's designed to replicate the chaos and confusion of close-quarter battle as well as some of the ethical problems soldiers encounter in urban conflict.

Units will maneuver through a 3D video game that combines the ring of battle with high-resolution images flashed on digital screens amid movable props and reconfigurable sets. The sets are large enough to drive a Humvee through, and will be enhanced with live, role-playing civilians and enemies. Details like flies buzzing around a pool of gore, sobbing widows and a shadow cast by a digital foe who hoses you down with AK fire all give this course the makings of a first-rate theme park. Trainers will eventually be able to tailor the sets and scenarios to specific missions. Imagine being able to rehearse something like the 1970 Son Tay POW camp raid or key fire fights in the 2004 battle of Fallujah.

It's still a couple bricks short of the Star Trek "holodeck," but it's light years ahead of the two-dimensional Doom Marines used to train with a decade ago. Similar programs are being used on the civilian side for customer service training and hold a great deal of promise when it comes to polishing the troops' communication skills, patience and etiquette when dealing with shell-shocked natives. (See Irate Customer video below.)

The Office of Naval Research has spent almost $75 million in the last 10 years on the Advanced Infantry Immersive Training program, according to Defense News. One Trainer will be installed in a 30,000-square-foot former tomato-packing warehouse near Camp Pendleton. Another will go in the new Marine Expeditionary Rifle Integration Facility near Quantico, Virginia.

The Army is also working on a live-virtual, immersive system (video below), and the Navy already uses a virtual ship to train recruits.