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Brandy Baker / The Detroit News
(Photo)U.S. Army Researcher Paul Tennant, left, prepares to use Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment simulator as Ford Research Engineer Larry Cathey watches. The Army is interested in building a similar simulator.

Expert: Virtual reality driving has military applications

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

DEARBORN — Dialing a cellular phone while driving is not advisable. Nor is it easy.

So imagine the challenge of piloting a tank or a helicopter while monitoring complex navigation, communications and weapons systems.

That’s what prompted the U.S. Army to knock on Ford Motor Co.’s door Monday.

Having learned about Ford’s $10 million driving simulator on the Internet, civilian employees from the Army’s Maryland-based Aberdeen Test Center visited the automaker’s scientific research lab and got behind the wheel of VIRTTEX — short for VIRtual Test Track EXperiment.

The simulator allows scientists to duplicate the look and feel of highway driving as a means of studying issues such as driver distraction. To date, Ford has used the simulator to explore possible solutions to driver fatigue, and to answer a nagging question: who is better at multitasking with electronics — graying baby boomers or tech-savvy teens?

The Army’s interest is logical enough, said Ford researcher Jeff Greenberg.

“The underlying issues, obviously, for a military vehicle and a commercial vehicle are somewhat different,” Greenberg said. “But the way you measure them, the way you set up experiments are likely to be very, very similar.”

In industry research, as with military research, two considerations are paramount: safety and realism. Test subjects cannot be exposed to risk, but the test conditions — often inherently dangerous — must closely resemble reality to produce reliable results.

The Army has access to virtual-reality simulators for functions such as weapons-firing, said Judith Wettig, a project officer at Aberdeen.

“But it doesn’t have scenery,” Wettig said. “It’s a very benign and vanilla environment.”

She got behind the wheel of VIRTTEX, which consists of a Ford Taurus cockpit anchored inside a mini-movie theater that is mounted on hydraulic stilts. The stilts respond to every manipulation of the car’s controls to simulate motion.

“It was quite realistic,” Wettig said. But the Army, which is contemplating plans to build its own driving simulator, would require crisper imaging.

The development of military vehicles, many of which are integrated with weapons systems, requires that researchers “complicate the environment” with distractions such as electronic interference.

Or worse.

Proficiency is important when it comes to weapons-firing.

“But you need to get to the target. So the idea is to produce different types of terrains and to make that real,” Wettig said.

Monday’s visit was part of ongoing research and was not prompted by events in Iraq, Wettig said.

Ford said it’s also working with the Army on a “panoramic fusion vision system.” Mounted on the front and rear of a vehicle, it provides panoramic imaging using infra-red cameras.

A night vision system is also under development, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy.

And who is better able to multitask while driving? Baby Boomers, Greenberg said.

Using VIRTTEX, Ford researchers showed Boomers were more aware of traffic while performing tasks such as dialing a cell phone. They missed just 13 percent of unusual events that occurred around them.

But Ford found teens were unaware 54 percent of the time when other vehicles swerved erratically.


Hadi Mizban / Associated Press
(Photo)U.S. soldiers driving tanks when explosions occur nearby, such at those in Khaldiyah, Iraq, recently, may benefit from using an updated Army simulator.


Brandy Baker / The Detroit News
(Photo)U.S. Army project officer Judith Wettig tries out Ford's simulator as Larry Cathey watches.


Brandy Baker / The Detroit News
(Photo)Wettig, right, uses Ford's simulator. "It was quite realistic," she said.
 
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