Military training is, by definition, an attempt at simulating warfare for the soldier. The stakes are too high for drill sergeants to educate charges with books and lectures: the weight of the pack and the kick of a gun when fired at a target have to be included as part of training.
This is how an army takes shape, but it's an expensive and time-consuming process. Training a recruit can involve anything from live fire drills or pushing them out of the back of a transport aircraft to learn how to parachute, using up assets that might otherwise be deployed more usefully in combat zones. At Holovis, however, software engineers are demonstrating that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are allowing armies to get closer than ever before to realistic depictions of the battlefield environment without the associated cost.
"I was extremely impressed by Holovis' professionalism," says Tom Smith of his first visit to the company. He was then a consultant at a major defence contractor, and the experience persuaded Smith to join Holovis as one of its simulation-solutions architects. "The technology I saw being deployed was far in excess of any other one that I had seen. The openness to new ideas, new designs and new products was incredible."
Holovis's expertise in military simulation spans several areas, starting with joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) training: training an individual to direct an airstrike. "Basically, everything takes place in a 4m-high dome, some projects and an auto-align system, but it has to be built to a very precise and high standard," explains Smith. Effectively a turnkey military simulation space, it has proved to be a popular product: "It's not unusual for 25, 30 or even 50 domes to be produced by Holovis."
Another innovation is LearnView, which is allowing engineers at BAE Aerospace Academy to step into a similar dome-like space and use AR software to examine entire vehicles in 3D. "Once you step into this environment, you are looking at what, to all intents and purposes, is a real aircraft in front of you," says Smith. "Having these projections in such high resolution makes your screw look like a screw. You can even put your screwdriver in it, turn it, and lo and behold, the metal cover behind it will pop off. It's that realistic."
The technological crossover between Holovis' enterprise and military product ranges remains close. Some of the technology behind LearnView was derived from civilian applications, such as planetariums. RideView - another platform that allows technicians to sit 'virtually' inside a vehicle - was originally developed to test theme-park rides. It is now used to spot crucial design flaws in military aircraft.
"In the simulation world, one of the great advantages is the appearance of shadows," says Nigel Best, business development director at Holovis. "If you're sitting in there, and there's an aerial sticking out the side of the fuselage, it casts a shadow on the ground and you probably won't see it in real life. In a simulator, if it casts a shadow, it will be across the visual display. In the past, you wouldn't have realised that until the aircraft was built."
Best envisions applications for AR and VR in the military space in the near future. "Many years ago, I did a parachute course," recalls Best. "The first time you do it, you go up in a balloon and jump off, and it's scary. There's little doubt about it. But actually, you could now train an individual in that sort of simulator without having to employ aircraft. You can imagine the savings if, on every training course, you only had four jumps instead of eight," he concludes.