3D Animation: Entering Into the Future

All around us the world of digital animation and 3D graphics are revolutionizing the way that we go about our daily business. Whether it’s in movies, or advertisements, or smart phone applications, more and more images that were drafted in only two dimensions a few years ago, seem to be getting another one [link to Honey Nut Cheerios Bee—or something more ridiculous]. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as the “Holodeck” system made popular in the Star Trek the Next Generation TV series (though Microsoft is taking steps), but for many people, computer simulations are elevating us to a level of virtual reality that some have anticipated but believed to be some Asimovian prospect like of space travel and robotics (both technologies also full of exploding potential).  But while the floodgates of these possibilities are just opening, and 3D animation and integrated reality in its infancy, this doesn’t mean that what computer engineers are producing isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of what was going on only a few years ago. We’ve all either seen or taken part in some of the virtual simulations that have been around for years: pilot training programs; virtual roller coaster rides or golf courses. At a suburban mall in the mid-nineties, I watched several visitors, donned in headgear and light-pistols, fight their way through an Atari-like virtual reality maze—all for about ten dollars a pop—and nearly being frightened by how close it brought me to what I had seen in Sci-Fi movies. But this happened in a world where animated Disney features were still two-dimensional and underscores how the changes in 3D animation have brought us to a point of no return. And with this has come the question of how to use take this technology from the realm of entertainment and put in to more practical, if not vital, use in other fields. One familiar use has been in the pilot training simulations mentioned above, but other organizations have also taken the initiate to develop 3D technology to help train their members. And not surprisingly, the US military is leading the way.

In May, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was invited to try out the US Army’s newest training tool, the Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS). The system provides real-world simulations, not only for single combatants, but also for larger fire-teams and squads. The DSTS was apparently inspired by a first-person shooter video game that was popular in the US military and the training situations that it provides are purported to be highly realistic—down to moving as a group and hiding behind available cover.

The US military has also recently announced the purchase of a training system that has been used so far to train NFL athletes. The device works by placing the trainee into a 3D interactive training environment, and then begins to test that person’s reflexes through a series of audio-visual stimuli. Professional athletes have been using the system to help improve their responses on the field, and the US military hopes that it can begin to help special Ops commandos—like the ones who killed Osama bin Laden—hone the skills that have become so necessary to surgical, anti-terrorist missions, where keeping civilian casualties to a minimum is more important than ever.

There is also an impressive story about a North Carolina man in 2008 who gave emergency first aid to the victims of a car accident that he had come upon. He had had no prior medical training but had been playing a first-person video game called America’s Army, a PR tool that the Army launched several years ago. One of the game’s levels was that of a medic and its objectives were to learn some of the basics of how to aid soldiers in the field. The man claimed that because of the lessons he gleaned from playing this game that he was able to respond on the scene and help the people who had been injured.

So, while it’s not unusual that the military is taking a lead in pursuing the possibilities that 3D training offers, it definitely seems that, as a practice, the trend has been set. More and more organizations—public and private—are going to forever alter how workers are trained, particularly for dangerous and high-risk occupations. With trainees placed in a simulated environments and be prepared for whatever hazardous scenarios before actually entering into them. And with technologies like this taking their cue from entertainment like video games today, it’s interesting to think about how that technology might be re-packaged and sold back to consumers in the not-too-distant future. With consoles like the Xbox Kinect already making hands-free gaming a possibility, it’s not hard to imagine this type of virtual simulation becoming a part of everyday home entertainment, even if you’re not Will Crusher. With this kind of consumer hardware available, it could make everything from cooking, to car repairs, to fixing a leaky sink an easy lesson with a simulated tutorial. It would open doors to learning new things that would have previously been impossible. And who knows, maybe in those circumstances, having someone who had learned first aid from a video game treat your wounds, wouldn’t seem so nerve-wracking.