Finding Osama bin Laden in a dark, catacomb-like compound was deadly serious.
But it first could have been a game. A video company in Texas is developing virtual reality technology that will let terrorist hunters experience a 3D walk-through — be it in an embassy, a hideout or a village.
Affixed with goggles and standing on a treadmill platform called the Omni, SEAL Team Six members could move through a virtual, exact replica of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, based on intelligence data fed into its software.
“Imagine the utility of the Omni in a scenario like the Osama bin Laden raid,” said Gavin West, a former Marine Corps officer now advising Virtuix, the Houston-based producer of the Omni. “The computer-generated scenario looks and feels more realistic than the plywood skeleton of a building.”
The military built a life-size replica of bin Laden’s secret abode for SEALs to learn the compound’s every nook and cranny before helicopters touched down that night in May 2011.
In theory, the military would no longer need such real models, just virtual ones, said Jan Goetgeluk, a Belgium-born investment banker who gave up the world of finance to form Virtuix and invent the Omni.
“The Omni immerses the soldier in an initial environment to prepare him for real-life situations,” Mr. Goetgeluk said. “With Osama bin Laden, that whole compound was physically rebuilt to train the SEALs for the mission. With virtual reality, any mission can be basically rebuilt.”
Mr. Goetgeluk’s firm will begin shipping the $499 consumer game version later this year while it works on a military prototype.
He hopes the Omni is the next leap forward in war-fighting simulation. After all, whether it’s a war exercise or planning for a real mission, the armed forces loves to first simulate the action to see how it should go.
“The Omni provides the user the ability to walk, run, jump, crouch and interact with the virtual environment the user is seeing through the head-mounted display,” said Mr. West, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He said the system’s commercial version was on display at the November-December Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, (ITSEC), an annual show that exposes the military to new kinds of training simulators.
The Omni’s commerical version prompted inquiries about a military version that may be shown in December at ITSEC.
In all, the militarized Omni would include four components: goggles for 360-degree, 3D images; the Omni platform, a sort of a treadmill; a weapons training interface; and a computer program that recreates the world that awaits the warfighter.
All four components would be turned over to a defense contractor for integration based on military specifications.
“The mil/spec version will have the ability to support additional forms of movement as well as a fully combat-loaded soldier,” Mr. West said. “A fire team, squad or platoon could enter the virtual environment and practice immediate action drills, large scale raids, or any other individual or group training standard. Any scenario could be created and rehearsed.”
One system, or a dozen, could be standard equipment for a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) at sea, for example. In an emergency, such as a besieged embassy, the Marines could experience the mission before going ashore.
“Unit commanders could jump on the Omni and literally walk down the hallway of the embassy they are about to evacuate,” Mr. West said.
Concerning Benghazi and the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and the CIA compound, Mr. West said, “Within minutes of an attack, special operations forces could be on an Omni and immersed in a virtual Benghazi consulate.”
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