Australian defence force employs Oculus gear to explore VR

The Australian Department of Defence is exploring the use of virtual reality, by way of Oculus Rift head-mounted displays, kicking off a study to explore the future applications of the technology.

The Australian Government Department of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) has launched a study to explore virtual reality (VR) and its potential future application within the defence force.

The DST Group has teamed up with California-based VR manufacturer, Oculus, to perform a study being undertaken by Sarah Hibbard as part of a Graduate Industry Placement at DST Group Edinburgh, in South Australia, with the study forming the thesis component of her degree.

According to the DST Group, the study will include up to 60 defence civilian and military personnel, and has been administered to improve training, education and performance within the military environment.

"DST Group supports Defence in maintaining a technology watch," a spokesperson for the DST Group told ZDNet. "This involves understanding and evaluating emerging technologies, such as low cost VR."

"The improved performance of such systems, combined with the low cost and ease of use suggests that there will be considerable interest from various training providers, including Defence, in potentially exploiting such technologies.

"DST Group is working to understand some of the potential negative consequences of such technologies as well, such as VR simulator sickness."

According to the department, over four weeks the test group will use simulation technologies based on gaming technologies, to increase the realism and immersion of simulated military scenarios designed to test the cognitive performance of each participant.

"The study will test each participant individually over a 1.5 hour period, commencing with a written survey to collect data on demographics, digital literacy, and immersive tendencies," Hibbard said. "Using the Oculus Rift VR head-mounted display or a desktop computer, each participant will then undertake an initial training session and complete two missions as a driver within the laboratory's vehicle simulator."

The participants will have their head movement tracked and represented within the virtual world, operating a simulated 4WD vehicle via the headwear.

"The two instruction formats to be used are a lean and a rich condition; the lean condition involves a text based description of the purpose of the mission that participants will be asked to undertake, and in contrast, the rich condition will involve presentation of the same description but delivered through use of multimedia," the spokesperson said.

"The study will provide a greater understanding of how display types and instruction formats can influence one's sense of presence and performance within the virtual environment."

The department said that outcomes of the study will inform research being undertaken by scientists in DST Group's Human Performance and Simulation Laboratory, which is helping the Army understand the potential of gaming technologies, such as virtual reality, for enhancing the quality of training.

"I am hopeful that the study will provide a greater understanding of how display types and instruction formats can influence one's sense of presence and performance within the virtual environment. These findings will assist the set-up and design of future simulations within Defence," Hibbard said.

The Facebook-owned virtual reality company was purchased by the social media giant in March last year at a cost of approximately $2 billion. At the time of the acquisition, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that while mobile is the platform of today, his company is getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow.

"Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play, and communicate."

Earlier this year, the First Principles Review of the Department of Defence recommended that the chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer have greater oversight of information management across the entire department.

As part of the review [PDF], the government accepted 75 of the 76 recommendations, and has given the department two years to implement the changes, which will be headed up by the secretary of the department and the chief of the defence force.

The department had intended that its CIO, Peter Lawrence, be responsible for information management across Defence, but "in practice, accountability has remained fragmented and unclear".

"There has been a lack of effective governance and control, which has led to siloed solutions, especially in the military arena where the Chief Information Office Group has less domain expertise and is further removed from the end user," the report noted.

Earlier this month, Lawrence said driving the transformation is the agency's realisation at how important it is to communicate data to the frontline.

"One of the biggest challenges we face is the traditional definition of warfare is changing, so our view is the next battle will be data information, and it will be whoever can take actionable data and knowledge the fastest will be the winner," he said.

"We've changed our thinking about what we need to deliver to the war fighter and it has changed the way we deliver ICT."

In October last year, the Department of Defence also began a 24-month trial to assess the merit of extending the use of the cloud within the department. It will initially use Google Apps, deployed in an offshore public cloud to host the unclassified academic learning environment for the Australian Defence College.