Thinking outside the box: Gaming to round out students' experiences
Capt. Cindy Serrano of the Air and Space Basic Course tries out a VirtuSphere locomotive simulator. The Squadron Officer College has two of the 20 devices in existence. (Air Force photo/Christopher Kratzer)
Maxwell's VirtuSpheres only ones in Air Force

by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs

6/17/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The Squadron Officer College has taken virtual reality to a whole new level. Two VirtuSphere locomotive simulators have been installed and are being tested for applications in educating Airmen.

The VirtuSphere, developed by brothers Ray and Nurulla Latypov, is a new simulation platform for engaging learners with simulated dangerous or otherwise challenging environments and operations. The system, which consists of a giant trackball input device, headset and peripherals, allows users to interact with 3-D virtual learning environments and games using the natural inputs of walking and head orientation. This technology allows users to become fully immersed in the learning experience, according to Brad Aldridge, an educational information technology innovations program analyst.

"This is very cutting edge. There are 20 of these things out in the world, and Air University has two of them, [the only two in the Air Force.] They come with two demos initially, but we are in the process of integrating them with other immersive virtual reality platforms," Mr. Aldridge said. "This is about learning. It is a neat experience, but we are doing this to improve learning at Air University and improve learning at Air University for our warfighting Airmen."

While the educational applications of the VirtuSpheres are still being explored, Dr. Fil Arenas, the professor of organizational leadership studies at Squadron Officer College, said he is excited about the possibilities this new technology brings.

"From the Squadron Officer College's perspective, we are always exploring innovative means to engage our students in the development of their leadership acumen," he said. "Currently, we have avatar vignettes in several of our courses as supplemental exercises and a Second-Life virtual campus that we employ in meetings, indoctrinations, demonstrations and use for prototype development. One of our goals is to have several virtual lessons or optional exercises within this environment to provide yet another facet of experiential learning for our company-grade officers."

Advances in this type of technology offer Squadron Officer College a unique opportunity to reach a younger generation.

"We are always looking for innovative techniques to engage our learners here. We have that younger group of officers. They need this type of input. They need innovation, because they grew up with this type of thing in their hands," Dr. Arenas said. "A lot of research has shown that an immersive, experiential type of learning is more productive."

Air University plans to partner with other institutions such as the United States Military Academy at West Point, Harrisburg University and Stanford University, to pioneer using locomotion technologies like the VirtuSphere. Dr. Arenas said he hopes the collaboration will bring about new and innovative ways to use this technology.

"These institutions are using this technology for 'scenario generation' and leadership development applications," he said. "We hope to partner with some of these educational pioneers to advance our understanding of these applications, particularly in the areas of leadership, team building and decision-making."

Eventually, Squadron Officer College plans to incorporate the technology into existing programs. One possibility is integrating it with the highly successful cultural leadership exercise, which allows students to interact with villagers of a small island nation, while being careful not to violate cultural norms and values, in order to gather information, according to Dr. Matthew Stafford, chief academic officer of Squadron Officer College.

"We see a potential to recreate the (cultural leadership) exercise in the VirtuSpheres. It would require an investment of additional interactive equipment - interactive suits and gloves - but would pay big dividends in the long run," he said. "The pioneering work with this cultural exercise could drive a follow-on wave of culture-specific scenarios to prepare deploying Airmen for work within specific geographic regions of the world, sensitizing them to this important dimension of human interaction in the risk-free virtual environment."

Even though the VirtuSpheres are still being tested, everyone at Squadron Officer College is ready for their chance in the simulator, said Dr. Arenas.

"When they built these a few weeks ago, the founders were here. The students were watching it happen, and we couldn't stop them from coming in here. They're chomping at the bit," he said. "I've had everyone at SOC, even the flight commanders, wanting to know when they get their run."

While the new technology is exciting, Dr. Stafford said he hopes the VirtuSpheres will be great tools for preparing Airmen for future challenges. "SOC is eager to exploit the potential of this exciting new technology to enhance learning for Airmen throughout our Air Force," he said.