At a Naval training facility in Newport, R.I., gunner’s mate Jacob Cabrillo, a new junior sailor, sits hunched in his chair, fully outfitted in his Navy uniform.
The humming of the ventilation and the creaking of the ship buzz in the background. After getting into a fight with a fellow shipmate, Cabrillo nervously awaits a meeting with his superior officer.
The superior officer is actually a student at the U.S. Navy’s Officer Training Command, about to take part in a lesson in how to informally counsel a subordinate. However, Cabrillo is not really a subordinate, a sailor or even a real person. He’s a virtual human in a mock navy ship, created to look and act like a real-life sailor, as part of the Immersive Naval Officer Training System (INOTS).
INOTS is a groundbreaking leadership development tool created by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), with collaboration from the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Service Training Command. This recently installed prototype is believed to mark the first time the military is using a life-sized virtual human for classroom training.
ICT also is developing an Army version scheduled to be delivered to Ft. Benning, Ga., later this year.
“Leadership training is about more than physical strength and giving orders,” said Kim LeMasters, creative director at ICT. “Officers are often called upon to handle personnel problems but may lack the necessary skills and experience to be effective managers or counselors. Our system, which combines believable characters and powerful storytelling, provides a compelling way to improve how these trainees deal with interpersonal issues.”
The issues can include financial problems, domestic disputes and on-the-job quarrels. While textbooks may provide procedures on how to handle such conflicts, they can’t substitute for real relationships.
INOTS is like a case study that has come to life. Virtual human Cabrillo has the ability to respond, raise his voice or shake his head in frustration. Students can learn from speaking with him or a diverse cast of characters created at ICT. These agents operate in virtual worlds, have the ability to express a multitude of emotional responses and can perform actions in their environment, all without human direction.
Using the INOTS program, trainees are able to see demonstrations of appropriate communication techniques and then can practice with a virtual human. While one student is interacting with the simulated sailor, up to 50 other students are in a classroom also participating by using clickers to select which action they would take. An instructor then leads the class through an evaluation and discussion of the conversation.
Traditionally, students might have practiced with an actor hired to play the part of a sailor or with fellow students role-playing. But employing live role-players can be very costly, and they may lack the ability to provide effective feedback. Virtual humans offer consistent performances, can work nonstop in any location and are equipped with software that allows for comparison and analysis of every exchange.
Most importantly, students seem to be paying attention to them.
“In the Navy, if a sailor feels like he or she is about to fall asleep, they’re told to stand up,” said Julia Campbell, a research associate at ICT and the instructional design lead for INOTS, who recently tested the system in Rhode Island. “No one stood up in the back of the class at the Newport base. They were completely engaged in the program.”