A near-aboard torpedo explosion starts fires and flooding in a Virginia-class submarine operating at periscope depth. In the auxiliary machinery room, the CO2 scrubber is in flames, spewing thick black smoke. Nearby sailors hit the cutoff switch and then quickly strap oxygen tanks on their backs and spray fire extinguishers, putting out the electrical fire. But the blaze has spread to the lagging, and it’s moving quickly.
The sailors unreel a hose, pull back the bail on the nozzle to test the water flow, and then advance on the fire. They feel the hot wind from the flames, and smell the acrid smoke. The sound of the fire, echoing in the small room, is deafening. The sailors struggle to control their emotions, and do the job they were trained to do.
All this is taking place inside a 40-foot shipping container on a pier next to the sailors’ actual submarine. The sailors are wearing headsets that are creating a virtual-reality machinery room on fire. The cutoff switch, oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, hose and nozzle are all physical props that the sailors can manipulate. The hot wind they feel is created with heat lamps and fans, and the smell of smoke is artificial. The roaring sound of the fire is in their headsets.
Only the sailors’ emotions are real.
This is a type of “mixed reality,” combining VR images and physical props that users can “see” in their headsets and actually touch. Because it is a multi-user environment, sailors can physically work together, and learn from each other, as they train.
Recent advances in immersive technologies—which create simulated environments that users can participate in—are helping to make this kind of training both feasible and cost-effective for the joint forces.
Mixed reality does not replace schoolhouse training. Rather, it gives sailors and others the opportunity to increase their training “reps and sets” in a realistic environment that can essentially be a portable pier service. The shipping containers can be placed on a pier next to a submarine or a ship, with the props inside the container configured to the individual vessel— and any number of training scenarios.
The torpedo explosion has damaged the submarine’s seawater flanges, and the water pressure from an intake valve has cracked a 10-inch pipe in the forward lower level of the engine room. Water is spewing from the pipe, quickly flooding the room. Sailors activate the flood-control switch, but that system has been damaged as well.
The sailors grab a flooding repair patch kit and gloves. With water spraying in their faces, they press the patch to the pipe, just off the rupture, and hold it down with a chain and chain wrench. Fighting the intense water pressure, they roll the patch over the rupture, and then quickly apply the strapping and ratchet it down with a bandit kit.
All this is taking place in another part of the shipping container. Once again, the sailors are wearing headsets, maneuvering in a simulated, VR- created environment with props. The gloves and tools in the patch kit are real, and the cracked pipe is made of real metal—though the water rushing from it is created by VR. Intense air pressure in the pipe simulates the water pressure, making it difficult for the sailors to apply the patch. Small nozzles spraying mist and compressed air give the sailors the feel of water on their faces. Thanks to an advanced immersive technology known as “pass-through,” the sailors can actually see their gloved hands, the pipe, patch and tools, in the simulated scene.
Also once again, the intense sensory environment—and the physical struggle to get the patch on the pipe quickly—is triggering the sailors’ emotions. For some, the stress is making them less efficient, and more prone to the kinds of mistakes that can slow things down.
One of the advantages of mixed reality training is that sailors can go through the drill again and again, learning how to control their emotions and remain calm as they work quickly. In addition, sailors can be equipped with wearable devices, such as watches or chest straps, that measure stress. Data from the wearables might indi- cate, for example, that sailors who are experiencing heightened stress have slower reaction times, or less working memory, or perhaps mental tunnel vision, in which they’re focusing on a single threat or goal without seeing the larger picture. When sailors are wearing oxygen tanks, devices can tell whether the sailors are so stressed they’re using up their oxygen too fast, taking them out of the fight.
The information can be sent to trainers, and also to the sailors them- selves—in real time—so they can try to bring down their stress levels
through various techniques, improving their efficiency and conserving their oxygen. For example, sailors might do some quick deep-breathing exercises, or might recall times when they performed well in other high-stress training situations—giving them confidence they can do it now.
Despite the efforts of the sailors, fire and flooding are spreading throughout the submarine. The captain gives the order to abandon ship. Sailors move quickly to the logistics escape trunk and don their submarine escape immersion equipment (SEIE). The first three sailors climb in the escape trunk and the hatch is sealed. It’s pitch black, so they crack open chem lights.
In the half-darkness, they turn the valves that let seawater in up to their waists, and then—amid the deafening sound of rushing water, and water splashing in their faces making it hard to see—they turn other valves that equalize the pressure inside the chamber and outside the submarine so the escape hatch can be opened. The high stress and sensory deprivation are almost overwhelming. But the sailors must work fast, and they can’t make even a minor mistake in lining up the valves—otherwise, they may disable the escape trunk not only for themselves, but for the 125 other sailors on the sub waiting for their chance to survive.
This scene is taking place in still another part of the shipping container on the pier. The escape trunk is a mock-up of a real one, with the valves as props, and the sailors’ headsets providing VR images of the rising water, the darkness, and the increasingly obscured vision.
Then the training exercise is over, and another set of sailors enter the ship- ping container. The next day, the submarine heads back out to sea, and the shipping container is moved to another pier, where the props—and the VR scene—are reconfigured for another submarine, and another crew.
Commander Eric Billies ([email protected]), is a retired surface warfare officer who leads Booz Allen’s business in the Pacific Northwest helping DoD clients chart innova- tive approaches to immersive (VR/AR/XR) training.
Maj. Nick Zimmer ([email protected]) is a retired Army infantry officer and Green Beret NCO who has led Booz Allen’s Seattle Immersive Studio, developing immersive training solutions for DoD clients.
Fire Control Technician Chief Petty Officer Joe Reck ([email protected]), is a retired Navy chief who spent 24 years on submarines and was a master training specialist. As a senior lead engineer at Booz Allen, he helps develop innovative immersive training solutions for Navy clients.