US Army Applying VR To Understand Group Dynamics

James Dargan

Small Special Operations Teams

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, also known as DEVCOM, along with the Army Research Laboratory funded scientists at Kent State University’s Electrophysiological Neuroscience Laboratory, are to establish an immersive virtual reality lab. Immersive reality is a technology that utilizes virtual reality (VR) to generate external stimuli like images and sounds to furnish the participant with an environment that is engaging and realistic. The lab can be used together with their other bio-physiological technologies to advance an interdisciplinary understanding of group dynamics and network influence.

Senior Army scientist Dr. Bruce West believes the military is becoming more reliant on small special operations teams, yet still has very little practical knowledge of small group dynamics in these extreme environments. Using state-of-the-art electrophysiological and physiological equipment, the Kent State researchers investigated how these military teams operated and made decisions under duress.

Image: Kent State. With Army funding, Kent State University creates an immersive virtual reality lab that can be used in tandem with other biophysiological technologies to advance an interdisciplinary understanding of group dynamics

“In order to make valid and efficacious practical recommendations for small special operations teams in the modern global military context and other threat environments, Soldiers can benefit by training in immersive virtual environments to make them feel like they are really there,” said Dr. Lisa Troyer, program manager, social and behavioural sciences, ARL. “The immersive virtual reality system at Kent State University is developing more valid, impactful knowledge about how teams and individuals navigate dangerous environments.”

The lab has ultra-modern VR headsets with three-dimensional eye tracking and omnidirectional treadmills, which can be integrated with EEG and other emerging biometric technologies.

Path-Breaking Discoveries

“With this lab, ENLoK is generating path-breaking social science discoveries,” Troyer added. “The team’s efforts are leading the use of immersive virtual reality and capabilities to identify neurological signals of influencers in groups that can support Army missions by better understanding Army influence networks as well as adversarial groups.”

Prior to this, the Kent scientists conducted a number of experiments funded by ARL and published in Social Psychology Quarterly that “manipulated status and used brain activity analyses to successfully identify neurological signals during social interaction that is unique to others’ perceptions of high-status actors and their influence over group members.”

According to Dr. Will Kalkhoff, ENLoK’s director and professor of Sociology at Kent State University:

“Understanding the consequences of status-based behaviour in a variety of settings, including small team contexts, can help the Army prepare and train for modern military operations. The Army can also use the knowledge we are developing to better understand how influencers in allied groups support Army missions through their social networks or how adversarial groups mobilize.”

The researchers at Kent State are now partnering with MILO, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based component of Arotech’s Training and Simulation Division that provides immersive training solutions for military and law enforcement organizations around the world. The aim of the partnership — which will combine painstaking social science with deep tech technologies already in use throughout the Department of Defense — is to refine the readiness of the police and military.

“Mission Success”

“Support and assisted facilitation of this kind of social research is exactly why we established the MILO Cognitive Division,” said Robert McCue, MILO’s general manager. “Our ultimate goal is to advance the scientific understanding of behaviour and decision-making under threat and, in so doing, reduce danger to our servicemen and women and improve mission success by facilitating team functioning under threat.”

About ARL

As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL is operationalizing science to achieve transformational overmatch. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more successful at winning the nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command.

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