I've written about DARPA's projects and their Godfather, Ralph Chatham, for Government Executive magazine. I caught up recently with Chatham, who just left DARPA at year's end. Among the many strands in our rich and fascinating discussion, we talked about a very exciting DARPA project that could revolutionize the way the military--and the rest of government--uses games, as well as wreaking wide-ranging effects on the way games are created in the commercial world.
In March, Chatham expects to see a first version of DARPA Real World become available for use in the field. What's the big deal? Well, the huge speed bump to military use of games for training is that service members haven't been able to easily alter them to accurately represent the terrain, buildings--outside and inside--and vehicles they confront in the field. Real World is designed to be truly user authored by not-so-technically-adept soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines on the ground. That means Real World can become a real mission rehearsal tool.
Daniel Kaufman, the RealWorld program manager, says his goal is to be able to build simulations without programmers. This "dictates a new approach to getting software requirements," he told the audience at DARPA Tech 2007, the systems and technology symposium held in August in Anaheim, Calif. "The 20 meetings to write the 100-page RFP to generate the 1,000-page specification to find a product that will not be delivered for four years has consistently failed," he continued. So he set out to build tools and capabilities so warfighters can create applications when they need them. Take a19-year-old soldier in the field, Kaufman said:
"He’s out on patrol in a rocky canyon in Afghanistan and some OPFOR pops up and shoots at him because that’s what an opposing force does.
Our warfighter engages, the OPFOR vanishes, and our Soldier returns to base to be debriefed by his commanding officer. Our soldier gets out his laptop – and, voila! On the screen appears a scene that is an exact 3-D recreation of precisely where he was in that canyon. Not generic terrain – this is exactly his patrol and exactly his location.
Within seconds, our soldier is dragging-and-dropping:
“This is where I was; this is where my buddy was; this is where George was; this is where the HMMWV was, this is where the sniper was, and this is where we got shot, sir.”
Notice that I said he does it. There’s no software guy; there’s no writing down specs. He does it, and within seconds it’s right on his laptop screen and it’s exactly correct.
If you think about it, in that one small instance, four very important things have taken place: RealWorld has become an after-action review tool, a mission planning and briefing tool, a mission rehearsal tool and a training tool.
Imagine recording this whole sequence, and then sending it back by e-mail to Ft. Polk and Ft. Lewis, and Twentynine Palms, or anywhere else. And instead of trying to tell a kid back at a U.S. training base, 'Look here’s a 100 pages of doctrine that explains how you are supposed to handle an IED, and here’s a Powerpoint slide, and here’s a satellite map, and here’s a contour map,' we put him right there!
Now training takes on a whole new meaning. Our stateside Soldier is not working with, "Here’s a square: imagine that’s you, and imagine the bad guy is this circle over here." We’re saying, “In 90 days, you’re going to be there. Work with this simulation and figure out what you would do. Because if we have not gotten that sniper – who really does exist- in three months, odds are he will still be out there and it will be your job to go get him.”
OK, so that's a revolution in military simulation, but what about overturning commercial game creation? Kaufman's prime contractor, Total Immersion, is making a bet by developing RealWorld for very little money. The company is getting its R&D paid for and gets to hang onto the real-time mission-rehearsal building tools it is creating. Since it now costs $20 million to $40 million to build a computer game, companies only invest in those that appear to have "blockbuster" written all over them. But what if a company developed a set of tools it could both use and license relatively inexpensively to others to use to create games quickly? Kind of blows open the whole game economy, eh?
More on all this to come, but for now, it's worth noting that Before DARPA, Kaufman worked for DreamWorks Interactive, a joint venture between Microsoft and DreamWorks SKG, where he was involved in creating games including Goosebumps, The Neverhood, Jurassic Park and the precursor of what was to become Medal of Honor. Before that, he was an attorney with attorney with Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison (Palo Alto, Calif.), where he had the largest game company representation in the United States, handling the EA/ABC joint venture, Spectrum Holobyte's management buy-out and merger with Microprose, which led to an IPO, the formation of Crystal Dynamics, and the formation and subsequent sale of Humongous Entertainment for $76 million. Oh, and the CIA's venture catalyst, In-Q-Tel, once commissioned him to look into how gaming could help the CIA train, too.
Smart development, smart acquisition, smart partnering with the private sector and smart risk taking. Watch out big, entrenched military simulation companies!