News

USC-West Point partnership provides invaluable research, training experiences

August 8, 2016

A group of 13 cadets is spending time at the Institute for Creative Technologies, shaping technology they may someday use in the classroom or the field.

By Orli Belman

On a recent morning at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), researchers gathered to hear a talk titled “Understanding Language through Machine Learning.” The topic is typical for this cross-disciplinary research institute; the speaker, 21-year-old Jareth Long-Garrett, is not. He’s a third-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy who is getting immersed in basic research as part of a unique partnership between West Point and USC.

Long-Garrett is one of 13 West Point cadets spending time this summer at ICT as part of the academy’s Academic Individual Advanced Development (AIAD) program. Since 2005, more than 100 cadets – including two Rhodes Scholars – have spent three weeks at USC’s Department of Defense-sponsored University Affiliated Research Center, where they take an active role in conducting academic research and in shaping the virtual reality and game-based training technologies that may later help them in the classroom or the field.

“It is always a pleasure to have the West Point cadets here each summer,” said Randall W. Hill Jr., ICT’s executive director and himself a West Point graduate. “As students, they bring bright ideas to helping solve research problems. As our nation’s future Army leaders they provide insights into how we can develop technology tools to help them succeed.”

Cadets also get a glimpse into a work setting where flip-flops are more common than combat boots. In addition to what he learned in computer coding, Long-Garrett says ICT’s diverse, creative environment provided valuable leadership lessons about the power of good communication and collaboration.

“It was cool to be able to talk to different members and get different pieces of the puzzle for the project I was working on,” he said. “I’ve only been through a few classes for computer science but everyone treated me as a member of the team.”

Working together

Participation in the AIAD program is just one example of how ICT and West Point are working together to provide advanced tools and technologies that are helping to educate and train future leaders.

“We can speak the Army for ICT researchers and they can speak the science for what we are trying to do,” said Maj. Charlie Rowan, an instructor in West Point’s engineering psychology department. “That reciprocity is all benefiting the Army, which makes this partnership a great success story.”

ICT has set up a lab at West Point and has a staff member embedded in its Department of Behavioral Sciences to further support the partnership. ICT and the Academy’s engineering psychology program have also collaborated on a series of seminars that bring in ICT researchers and developers to teach cadets how to use ICT’s Virtual Human Toolkit, Roundtable and Rapid Avatar systems, which teams of cadets have then used for their senior capstone projects.

“We are trying to put our cutting-edge technologies in the hands of bright, young future leaders while they’re still formulating ideas about the art of the possible, with the hope they will draw on these experiences when charged with training their own units one day,” said Rich DiNinni, ICT’s liaison to West Point.

Prototypes in service

ICT was established in 1999 with a contract from the U.S. Army to advance the state of the art simulation and training. Since that time, many ICT-developed prototypes have become part of the Army’s training curriculum. These include virtual human role players for reinforcing leadership communication skills and simulated scenarios for practicing decision-making under stress. Beyond the military, results of ICT’s Army Research Lab-funded research can be seen in the commercial low-cost virtual reality headsets currently on the market, in the believable digital characters featured in major motion pictures like Avatar and in virtual characters that are helping autistic young adults prepare for job interviews or assisting doctors-in-training with improving their clinical interview skills.

Summer in Southern California is not all work. The AIAD rotation includes field trips to entertainment industry companies, lunches at Los Angeles’ famed food trucks and also marked a different kind of immersion — Cadet Long-Garrett’s first visit to the Pacific Ocean. Just as he’s done at ICT, he jumped in feet first, no combat boots or flip-flops required.