Virtually Shooting Real Targets

By Bridget Testa

Jan. 9, 2009

If you’ve ever watched a cop show on television, you’ve probably seen a “shoot house.” Traditionally, it’s a special kind of firing range with life-size pop-up figures. Although accuracy matters, what’s truly vital in shoot houses is the ability of the police officer to judge instantaneously whether a pop-up figure is a good guy or bad guy and respond accordingly.

    In the Army, shoot houses go far beyond television. They are live-fire training facilities that replicate buildings or urban structures with interconnecting rooms and hallways, says Mike Terry, chief of the special tactics training division of the Army’s military police school at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Eighteen inches of rubber cover these facilities’ interior walls to capture live rounds, and steel plates between the inner and outer walls further prevent bullets from escaping. Soldiers can “maneuver through the building and engage threat targets under live-fire conditions,” Terry says.

“In the past, soldiers could only shoot a pop-up target or a paper target that would just fall over,” says Scott Johnston, America’s Army’s project lead for live-fire shoot houses. “It wouldn’t react to you.”

But with America’s Army, virtual live-fire shoot houses now present realistic moving targets that respond to a soldier’s presence and actions. “Upon entering a room, a soldier comes face-to-face with what appears to be another human or humans,” Terry says.

In fact, what the soldier sees in the virtual live-fire shoot house is a life-size projection of an America’s Army computer simulation, displayed on the shoot house’s walls. Integrated laser detectors allow the simulation to respond to a soldier’s actions. “We have characters that react as real characters act,” Johnston says. “They may reach for a weapon or have a hostage.”

In that environment, a soldier has to quickly evaluate the situation, determine the right action, get in position for a possible exchange of fire and, finally, act. “This may take no more than a second,” Terry says. “The virtual shoot house steps up the level of realism, [which] is crucial to the overall learning process.”

If things go awry, the simulation can be paused at any moment and then resumed. “It’s an immediate way of providing feedback to soldiers and then [they can] go right back into training,” Johnston says.

From Terry’s point of view, the virtual live-fire shoot houses are invaluable. They “increase proficiency and confidence in tactics, techniques and procedures and increase survivability,” he says. “Soldiers get a chance to put their collective and individual skills to the test under tough and realistic conditions. Every shoot house in the Army should be outfitted with this capability.” Currently, only three virtual live-fire shoot houses exist, but a fourth will be opening at West Point in spring 2009.

Virtual live-fire shoot houses obviously apply to law enforcement and corporate security, but they’re not so clearly applicable to business activities not involving live ammunition. Nevertheless, they prove a crucial point about using simulations for training.

“In a simulation, you can try new things without risk,” says Joe DiFilippo, a consultant with BTS, and an eight-year Army veteran, where he both participated in and facilitated a number of simulations. “If it doesn’t work out, you can try again. There’s a big risk with a real situation. Simulations are safe, quick and easy, with on-the-spot behavioral change.”

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