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US Army leverages VR technology to improve combat decision making

The US Army is exploiting recent advances in virtual reality (VR) technology, as well as in neuro and other physiological sensors, to help understand how small teams function in extreme environments.

The research was funded by the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM)'s Army Research Laboratory (ARL), and led by scientists at the Electrophysiological Neuroscience Laboratory at Kent State University. It saw the development of a virtual reality lab aimed at furthering the understanding of group dynamics, an important consideration as the US military becomes more reliant on small teams, such as special operations forces.

Understanding group dynamics is important because of the sheer number of decisions that individuals and teams need to make in such environments to act efficiently and effectively, both individually and as part of a team, said Dr Lisa Troyer, programme manager – social and behavioural sciences at ARL.

Previous research in the field relied on self-reporting, with people “telling us what they thought they thought”, Troyer said. However, subjects may describe those thoughts in ways that they think the questioner wants to hear, or “they might not even really know what's going on in their brain”, she added.

Realistic VR simulations can overcome such challenges, according to Troyer. The lab used VR headsets with three-dimensional eye tracking and omnidirectional treadmills, which allow the user to walk or run in any direction. Participants also wore haptic gloves, which detected and recorded their hand movements. While the army has used such technology in various applications in recent years, the lab's approach was unique because it allowed the researchers to combine VR systems with physiological sensors, said Troyer.

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