Defense IT

Marines using virtual reality to lighten real-world load

While computer simulations in the past have been used for training purposes to make soldiers more effective as well as developing more lethal weapons, researchers are now turning to virtual reality to lighten the load warfighters carry. 

The Office of Naval Research has given the Marine Corps a 3D computer simulation program that can measure equipment weight, distribution and effects on body mechanics, ONR said in a release. Similar to some computer games, ONR’s Enhanced Technologies for Optimization of Warfighter Load, or ETOWL, program allows users to create avatars—based on one of seven male and female body types—that can be loaded with as much or as little equipment as the user chooses. Users then run test scenarios and virtual obstacle courses with the equipment loaded to test the effects on digital soldiers. For example, ETOWL identifies stress points placed on digital avatars’ joints using a color-coded system.           

The program and software were delivered to the Gruntworks Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad, which focuses on mobility. Gruntworks is one of the Marines’ testing centers serving as a “workshop” for emerging equipment, ONR said.

In addition to studying stress points on individuals, some of the benefits of ETOWL include improved product designs of vehicles that allow Marines to fit better and escape easier and improved data sets to design real-world prototypes for testing by live Marines. 

“ETOWL fits perfectly within ONR’s mission to develop groundbreaking technologies that enhance the resilience, physical superiority and overall warfighting performance of U.S. Marines,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, vice chief of Naval Research.

“ETOWL has been an important part of ONR’s mission because we now have a system to better understand human performance,” added ONR Program Manager Dr. Peter Squire. “This is a burgeoning research area that will only become more critical in the future.”

Following the transfer of ETOWL from ONR to the Marines, the program will be made available to the academic community for wider use. In fact, ETOWL was developed at the Center for Computer Aided Design at the University of Iowa, so it is fitting that it will be returned to academia where it can be improved upon. Squire said that the return will “allow for further research and potential improvement of ETOWL and future programs like it.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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