Army to deploy virtual reality capabilities to combat sexual assault

iStock.com/NatalyaBurova

Lessons on regulatory guidance and more will be provided through the potential new training.

While the Pentagon works broadly to confront what lawmakers have deemed a military sexual assault crisis, the U.S. Army is preparing to train some of its staff in prevention and response techniques by placing 18,000 soldiers in uncomfortable situations via virtual reality.

A request for information published on Wednesday details the branch’s plans to buy 200 VR headsets and six associated software programs to underpin its envisioned work. 

“The system needs to be a fully immersive virtual reality training platform in which soldiers will experience real-world scenarios of inappropriate behavior unbecoming of a DOD service member,” officials wrote. “Through this training, soldiers will learn the current regulatory guidance and how to intervene, respond, and report [sexual harassment/assault response and prevention, or SHARP] related incidents.”

Virtual reality is one option within the on-the-rise realm of extended reality technologies. Generally, it involves headsets and other wearable devices that immerse users in computer-generated environments where they can engage with and adapt to all that surrounds them. Federal agencies and military components over the last couple of years have increasingly launched pursuits to strategically explore VR’s potential for medical, training, and other purposes. 

This latest work mentioned in the new notice marks one of the multiple moves the Army is making to help better protect soldiers from sexual harassment and assault—at a time when reports of such encounters are extremely high. Recent research suggests more than half of the nation’s servicewomen report enduring harassment in their jobs and one in four reports experiencing sexual assault. 

Responding to rising concerns last year, Army leaders articulated plans to overhaul its SHARP program and form a new office to “make decisions to take action on” sexual harassment and assault crimes in the force, among other efforts. The National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year also includes a package of policies aimed at supporting survivors of sexual assault in the U.S. military and reforming how incidents are investigated and handled going forward.  

The RFI for anti-harassment VR capabilities identifies a contract requirement for the 82nd Airborne Division on Fort Bragg, which is being administered by the Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command. 

Officials aim to procure a mobile VR training platform that can be deployed to units throughout that specific division.

Aside from testing the equipment, the division has “never used VR goggles for sexual assault and harassment training” before, SHARP Program Manager Sergeant First Class Andrea Kay told Nextgov on Friday. 

“The training will definitely be more relatable to the younger generation,” Kay said.

Education provided, according to the Army’s notice, will need to be completely customizable and meet the regulatory guidance for the Army’s official SHARP program. A credentialed SHARP professional will be required to review and approve all production work of the system. Controllers won’t be used in this case—only headsets that provide self-guided experiences for trainees. 

“Participating trainees will see realistic [Army-related] work areas and people as if really in the room,” Kay explained. “The virtual reality goggles give a realistic training where you interact with simulated personnel who experience incidents of sexual harassment or assault.”

Interested vendors who can provide such capabilities are invited to respond to the RFI by Jan. 15. 

Editor’s note: This article was updated Jan. 7 with comments from the Army.

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