Here Comes The Holodeck

Date: Thu May 10 2001 - 11:45:20 MDT

Source: University Of Southern California (
Date: Posted 5/10/2001

Here Comes The Holodeck: Virtual Reality + Artificial Intelligence = New
Training Tool

The use of virtual reality or arcade games to practice hand-eye coordination
or quick reaction, or even to teach factual information is easy to understand
and well accepted. But can such techniques also teach sound judgement and
clear thinking in an emergency?
New programs developed by the University of Southern California's Information
Sciences Institute (ISI) and two other cooperating USC institutes are
designed to do just this by melding advances in artificial intelligence with
state of the art work in rendering virtual environments in animation and

A "Mission Rehearsal Exercise" developed for the U.S. Army by ISI, the USC
Institute for Creative Technology (ICT), and the USC Integrated Media Systems
Center (IMSC) takes soldier-trainees on a virtual reality mission in a
troubled town in Bosnia. There, they must deal with a situation threatening
to spin out of control.

It uses a movie-theater-sized (8 -feet tall, 31-foot wide) curved screen that
looms around trainees. Combining with the screen images is highly directional
and lifelike "immersive sound," creating a convincing illusion of being
present at the scene, rather than observing a show.

The scene is populated with animated figures that exist only as computer
programs, but are nevertheless autonomous agents who can interact with human
trainees in real time.

An article about the Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRE) program appeared in the
documentation for AAAI Spring Symposium on Artificial Intelligence and
Interactive Entertainment, at Stanford University March 26-28 2001.
Presentation of another paper, along with partial demonstration of the system
is scheduled for the Agents 2001 conference in Montreal, Que. May 28-June 1,

The army simulation is an early attempt to reach toward the "holodeck," the
virtual reality training and recreation facility seen in "Star Trek: The Next
Generation," according to project leader Jeff Rickel of ISI.

In one simulation scenario, a lieutenant enters the village to deal with one
problem -- a weapons inspection team being threatened by an angry crowd --
and finds another one as well: an American jeep has accidentally struck and
injured a local child.

Should the lieutenant split his forces to deal with both situations? If so,
how? Meanwhile, a TV camera crew arrives, further complicating the situation.

The scene of the village uses 3-D computer modeling to create basic shapes
visible from any angle enhanced by texture mapping. The group used commercial
software from Boston Dynamics to add animations of people, and an extremely
sophisticated sound system -- with multiple sound tracks (up to 64 tracks for
some effects) played through no less than 12 speaker channels. Chris
Kyriakakis of the IMSC created this system.

Two kinds of autonomous software agents inhabit this complex and convincing
environment. Most are basic robotic programs that carry on a limited range of
pre-scripted, routinized behavior -- milling in the background, standing
around, etc.

Three -- the detachment medic and sergeant, and the anxious mother -- are
more complex. These are software actors who have substantial abilities to
react to what the trainee does. Their faces change expression, thanks to
software from the Santa Cruz, CA-based Haptek Corporation. They move, and
most strikingly, they can respond to speech.

Scripted characters are relatively easy to create, explains Rickel, "but have
limited flexibility, making them well suited for bit parts." AI characters
are more difficult to program, but can interact with people and with their
environment in more flexible ways, making them well suited for key roles such
as the mother, sergeant, and medic, who all have to interact with the human

Research by Rickel and his colleagues, who also include Jonathan Gratch,
Randall Hill, and William Swartout of ICT and Stacy Marsella of ISI, has
built on earlier work at ISI by Rickel and W. Lewis Johnson developing a
teaching agent called "Steve."

Steve instructed Navy recruits in a virtual-reality world presented through
VR glasses, responding to their simple questions. The Sergeant and the Medic
are more advanced versions of Steve. Steve's appearance has been updated from
the legless floating presence in the early version to a more lifelike form.

The third AI character, the Mother, adds another layer: she goes beyond words
to the expression of emotions. Gratch and Marsella were responsible for this

Another major addition to the Steve agent is the use of a dramatic story
line, with continuing incidents driving the action. To keep score at the end,
a television story reported by the news crew on the scene records the result
of the trainee's responses to the situation, chronicling either an abandoned
boy in critical condition, or a boy out of danger because of timely action.

"The work we have done in one way shows how far away the holodeck is -- but
in another shows how useful it may be," Rickel said. "The project represents
a grand challenge for both AI and virtual reality, but the potential payoff
is a powerful new medium for experiential learning."

"What makes the Mission Rehearsal Exercise project unique is that we are
bringing together for the first time a set of technologies including
immersive audio, large scale graphics, and virtual humans and linking them to
an interactive story line to create a compelling experience." added William
Swartout of the ICT.

"The synergies that result are powerful. We were surprised to find that even
though the system is still at its beginnings, some people came away from the
simulation emotionally moved. I don't think this effect is due to any one
element alone, but rather it is due to all of them working together."

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