Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are creating interactive video games to help military dog handlers stay sharp. Nathan Frandino reports.
Adam Moses is training to be a dog handler… in a virtual war. It's a Naval Research Laboratory project called Rover and it's designed to help military dog handlers looking for improvised explosive devices. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ADAM MOSES, COMPUTER SCIENTIST AND DEVELOPER OF "ROVER" TRAINING GAME, U.S. NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY, SAYING: "So Rover is really meant to provide an opportunity to train the trainer in the times he's not able to work with an actual IED-detecting dog." Moses and a team of researchers at NRL designed the game. The way it works is simple. Using a training tool called Virtual Battlespace and an Xbox 360 Kinect, they designed a skeleton tracker program to follow the gestures of a dog handler via a camera. Once the handler gets within visual range of the virtual dog, he can then issue commands. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MOSES, WHILE PLAYING GAME, SAYING: "So we have eight different commands. We've got back, which is just sort of this motion. Back meaning forward relative, back to him, so back out there. Then you have right, left. You have here, here. He can actually respond to those if he's already looking at you." From there the handler follows the cues of the dog who's using its senses to look for the IEDs. The dog in the game is a composite, modeled on real dogs in the field…who are trained to follow the plumes - similar to toxins - given off by the IED. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MOSES, UNDER VIDEO SHOWING PLUME OF IED PARTICLES FOLLOWED BY DOG FINDING IED SITE, SAYING: "So in this scene, we've modeled a release that's buried in that IED and it's pluming up through the air and we're talking parts per billion essentially is how small this gets and the dog can smell that, which is actually remarkable for the dog." But how does the video game compare to actual training? (SOUNDBITE) (English) ADAM MOSES, COMPUTER SCIENTIST AND DEVELOPER OF "ROVER" TRAINING GAME, U.S. NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY, SAYING: "In short it doesn't compare. I mean this is obviously very early stage. We're not saying this replaces it by any means. You need to work with the real dogs - that's critical. This is really meant to be a stopgap, and we'd like to improve that obviously as much as we can." And there's plenty of opportunity for improvement. With U.S. troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and IED-dog training facilities closing down…trainers in the future will be looking to a virtual world to sharpen their skills.