Interview: Peter Morrison, CEO of the company behind simulation software VBS2

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  12/13/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2) has risen in recent years to being the ‘serious game’ of choice for many military training programmes worldwide. Since its inception in Australia, the software has grown in both size and capability, offering realistic scenarios, sharp graphics and interoperability with other virtualisation solutions. Peter Morrison, CEO of Bohemia Interactive Studios, joins us to discuss these latest enhancements and how the programme is helping armoured vehicle operators to truly improve their skills.

Defence IQ         Peter, many thanks for sparing some time for us today.

Peter Morrison          Cheers, Richard.

DIQ        Thank you. Just a little bit on your background for our audience: you have first hand military experience, serving in the Australian Army some years ago, and specialising in, of course information technology, before leading the development on VBS2, and becoming top dog on the BI Sim branch in 2008, so, really, the creation of the software is very much rooted in genuine experience and understanding of warfare. I think that's an important point to make, before we begin.

As I mentioned, it's currently used by a number of international forces, including your homeland, Australia; also Finland, and across NATO member nations. I'd like to ask where the reach of VBS2 is expected to extend in the future, and really, how much development does that require for your developers, so, for example, if a new military wanted to jump on board with this software, what would you need from them to make it happen?

PM         Sure. So we expect VBS2 to expand across more NATO member countries over the next few years. Countries like Sweden and Norway, for example, already use VBS2 in a number of different capacities, but what we aim to do sell what we call an Enterprise Licence to these kind of countries. It gives them an unlimited number of copies of VBS2 to use for military tactical training and mission rehearsal. So that's how we're expecting it to expand.

The software itself has taken off, because before the advent of games for training there was really no way to train soldiers, and airmen and women in simulation. So you had your high fidelity simulators, your flight simulators and the like, but games for training allow us to put your average infantrymen, for example, in front of a computer, and get them thinking about the decisions that they’ll need to make when they're actually doing it in the field, and this has proved to be a very successful form of training.

DIQ        Yes, and I think it more or less goes without saying that it’s becoming very popular. For those who aren’t aware of it, they should go on the Internet, have a look at the videos, and see what's in store.

Just being that we're looking ahead to the event in January, how realistic, Peter, would you say VBS2’s virtual vehicle operation is, and what practical benefits can it offer servicemen, whether they're drivers, whether they're crew members, or whatever else, when it comes to really facing real life in-theatre situations?

PM         Realism is always an interesting concept. Typically, a game for training is used for cognitive training, which is how-to-think training, so at one end of the spectrum you can make decisions based upon a very unrealistic depiction of the battlespace, and the other end, if you're trying to train troops in specific roles, within a vehicle, for example, then it maybe needs to be very realistic, so the first thing to do is always pick where, on this spectrum, you need to target your training.

Within VBS2, specifically, we do cater to, I guess, many degrees of realism. By default, vehicles are generically simulated, using a physics engine that's known as PhysX by Nvidia. So it’s the same physics engine that's used in many modern computer games, and this is an extremely customisable engine that allows us to tweak the specifics of performance of many different types of vehicles.

So in VBS2 we have what we call the generic simulation of tanks, of wheeled vehicles, of helicopters, of UAVs, subsurface vehicles, ships; it's pretty much all in there, in this game, for training, and then if the training need demands it, for example, if a specific country comes and requests certain functionality, then we can improve the performance characteristics of the given vehicles to meet those training needs.

One example would be the tank gunnery training work we've done for the UK military recently. They wanted to use VBS2 as a tank gunnery trainer, essentially, and we were funded under contract to improve the Challenger 2 simulation, so we took the generic vehicle simulation and greatly improved it. We added, for example, correct gearing, so the vehicle actually changes through gears just like the real vehicle. It actually performs like the real vehicle with regards to physics, so you can't go up too steep a slope, or you might roll the vehicle over, this kind of thing; so that was implemented, as well as the specifics about the fire control system, so how you lay to a target, how you might do might do the lead lock procedure, for example. All of this was simulated within VBS2.

So this is an example of taking one vehicle, and improving it to a significant degree, to meet a specific training need. So I think this answers your question. It very much depends on where you want to take the products, and it's harder to game, but it's very easy to improve it to meet specific training needs.

DIQ        So it's more or less the commercial sector –  the entertainment industry –  that's brought these video games in, driven the initial innovation, and you’ve just refined that to be flexible enough to meet individual customers’ expectations?

PM         Yes, and this is the fantastic story behind games for training, because we're able to leverage this billion-dollar industry that is computer games. So PhysX by Nvidia, for example, that was entirely created for computer games, but it is an extremely powerful and flexible physics engine, so the military can leverage that, through games for training.

DIQ        Excellent. Of course, the software is perhaps just one of the elements that's required in order to be an immersive experience for the training programme. It requires the hardware as well, so the virtual cockpit, or driver’s seat, or whatever it may be. What's the process for integrating VBS2 with custom vehicle simulator hardware? Is that something that you support?

PM         It's something the software supports. At Bohemia Interactive, we, you know, we're the software provider. Our customers typically will then take VBS2 and tailor it to meet their needs, so we offer a number of different APIs, Application Programming Interfaces, with the software, to allow our customers to do just this.

What this is, is essentially a link between a VBS2 software and some external software or hardware, so if you had, for example, a tank gunnery trainer that was built entirely in hardware, maybe it has the correct kind of instrumentation that you might see in a real tank. You can then take VBS2, apply VBS2 to provide the visuals, so the out of the window display, and it connects your tank gunnery trainer to VBS2, so when you fire the trigger, you'll actually see a round fired within the game, and then some kind of impact on target, which is where you're going to get your training outcome.

So it's absolutely possible, and there's many examples of our customers doing just this around the world. I mean, an example not directly related to infantry fighting vehicles or armoured vehicles, we're actually integrated with an Apache simulator in the UK, which is quite exciting. It's providing the complete new generation solution for that.

DIQ        Is that process lengthy, or costly, or have you made it fairly straightforward, at least from where you sit, in terms of the software aspect?

PM         Usually it would be a three-month project, to integrate VBS2, but it all depends on the level of integration. If you want to use VBS2 purely as the visual display system, then it’s usually fairly quick, but if you want to take some control of the VBS2 environment, for example, if you want to draw your own heads up displays, which is certainly possible, then you’ll need to programmer to work on this, so it really all depends.

You know, three months is usually the quickest. By the time a simulation company or a user gets up to speed with the software and actually conducts the integration.

DIQ        Recently, earlier in the year, we visited Lockheed Martin, in their site down in Farnborough, and they talked us through how they were integrating your product with a number of other simulators, and really generating what I think you'd call a massive multiplayer situation in which they're able to train not only air assets, but also guys on the ground, and vehicles, all at the same time, and it really, I think, spoke to, as you were saying, the scalability and the scope of this software. It was quite remarkable. But obviously a question I think everyone’s keen to ask is, really, what are the future expectations for the updates of this software, to really enhance that experience, specifically for vehicle operators, and while we're on the subject, and bearing in mind that I'm far from an expert in this, can you tell us how long would those updates take to implement?

PM         Sure. I mean, first off, I'm very aware of what Lockheed’s been doing with our software, and we're extremely proud that they're using VBS2 as part of that facility. It's a fantastic facility, and I think it talks about the potential of games for training.

I mean, in the future, we definitely are expected by our customers to continue improving the software, and we're well funded to do this by all of them.

The improvements come from two directions so first off, they expect us to continue to leverage game technology, so at its heart, really, that's graphics. So the military does expect us to maintain a level of visual fidelity that’s commensurate with the, you know, the popular computer games of the day, and definitely new graphics hardware that supports new features, which needs to be implemented in software.

So on one side we're always improving the game in terms of the way it looks, how the sounds work, how the physics operates, to make sure that it's as good as the current computer games that are available on the market.

This is important for, I think, customer buy-in, so typically, if a soldier comes in, and they're going to use a game for training, they want it to look and feel modern, I guess, is the best way to say it.

So that's the game industry, and on the other side, the military does expect us to continue moving forward with military-specific enhancements. One example there would be massive terrain areas, so they want VBS2 to be able to page in these gigantic terrains, entire theatre of operations, so they don’t need to have a number of different terrain maps they need to load in, and plus that also helps with correlation, with other simulators, so if you have a flight simulator, it can correlate with VBS2, without you worrying too much about loading different terrains into the system.

The military also, I mean, you mentioned it yourself; they expect more entities. They expect VBS to be able to cater for thousands and thousands of both artificially intelligent and human players. This is important to them. At the same time, the military is also demanding support for mobile devices. How can VBS2 interoperate with mobile devices and leverage this exciting new technology, and what's that going to look like in training?

Some of our customers fund us for this kind of work, the US Army, for example, funded a range of work on improving our terrain representation, so we can support paging terrain. We're talking to a customer now about implementing snow, so a very good implementation of snow layers within VBS2. So these military enhancements come from all directions. Some of them are funded. Some of them are not, but definitely we have a very solid roadmap for years to come, to keep improving both aspects of the software, so both the game aspects and the military enhancements to the game.

DIQ       And both of those things sound like, at least from what I know, would require a huge amount of processing power. Is this something…? Are you struggling to actually meet those needs, based on the capabilities of modern-day technology today? Are you looking ahead to… or hoping that technology catches up with, sort of the demands that are being placed on you?

PM         Well, this is a significant challenge, for example, the US Army have mandated that their flagship game for training for the next five years will operate on the computers that they're running today, so we need to be able to achieve all this without expecting our customers to do a complete technology refresh, because if you can imagine the US Marine Corps or the US Army, this would involve millions and millions of dollars, so it's always a challenge, but it really depends on the particular enhancement. So paging terrain is a good example of an enhancement that actually decreased the system requirements, because before we implemented paging terrain, you had to load the entire terrain area into memory, which caused lots of issues there.

Paging terrain actually allows us to reduce the system requirements, but once you're doing massive terrain areas, well, you need to really run on a 64-bit system, just because otherwise you start to get errors due to the large numbers involved, so it’s very difficult, sometimes, to balance these different requirements. At the moment, VBS runs on Windows 7 and it's optimised for a 64-bit system, as of our next release in early 2013, but we're trying to say to our military customers, look, you don’t need to buy 20,000 new graphics cards for your computers, just to run the next version of VBS. So it's a difficult balancing act, but one that we have to do. It's very important to our customers.

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva

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