ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Modern movie superheroes rescue hostages by evading hailstorms of bullets and harming only evil-doers who resist.
In the flesh-and-blood world, people who sign on to be cops -- whether city, state or FBI -- need extensive training to make the split-second judgments that would protect themselves, rescue the innocent, and disarm or disable hostage-takers.
To widen access to such training, lessen its cost yet broaden its focus, a virtual reality simulation that allows two-person law enforcement teams to grip guns, don virtual reality glasses, and burst into the harsh environment of hostage-takers and their victims has been created in prototype by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories.
The simulation, called VRaptor, was demonstrated at the IEEE's Virtual Reality Annual International Symposium, held in Albuquerque in early March.
A participant's job is to determine who are the hostages and save them, take prisoner those kidnappers who surrender, and shoot those who fire weapons.
"It's less like a video game and more like a flight simulator," said Sharon Stansfield, who leads the Sandia project. "It familiarizes law enforcement teams with scenarios."
Four virtual reality characters -- two men, two women -- are sitting, standing or lying in a room when a law enforcement team breaks in through a wall or door, delivering a concussion grenade.
The scenario, constructed with input from the FBI, is a sparsely furnished apartment -- kitchen table, chairs, living room couch, and an empty bookcase.
Human participants are monitored by sensors placed on their backs and hands. Signals from this electronic equipment determine the perspectives through which each participant sees events. Humans are represented in the scenario by graphical figures.
Just as a flight simulator may not distinguish between types of trees lining a runway but clarifies relevant details like the line of the horizon, VRaptor does not offer detailed images of people or furniture but provides the most important visual clues -- a falling or rising body, lifted arms, an outthrust weapon.
"The advantage is that multiple human participants can appear in embodied forms within a common, shared virtual environment," says Sandia researcher Dan Shawver. "They can experience situations in which they otherwise would have no opportunity to practice effective responses."
Outcomes are unpredictable because the sequences are not preprogrammed. The roles and behaviors of the characters are decided by a human trainer for each session. The graphics are computed in realtime. Unlike a video game there's no higher 'level' to which to progress, and there's no way to get familiar with the game enough to memorize its outcomes, says Stansfield.
"We feel our model represents an improvement over current law enforcement training methods in 'shoot houses,' " says Stansfield. "Shoot houses allow agents to use real guns to fire on mannequins, but the mannequins don't do anything, they're just there." Some cardboard mannequins do pop up, but that's all they do.
VRaptor is an acronym for virtual reality assault planning, training, or rehearsal. The program as it becomes more complicated may eventually be used for evaluating assault plans, training for a variety of rescue circumstances, or rehearsing a particular scenario.
The work is in its second year of funding by Sandia's Laboratory-Directed Research and Development program, which finances speculative defense-related research.
Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.