for National Geographic News
A routine food distribution deep in the mountains of a foreign land suddenly goes awry when a local warlord shows up, demanding to take over security from the U.S. soldiers carrying out the operation.
As the aid convoy pulls into the camp, a stampede erupts. When a hungry refugee attempts to steal food off a truck, a militiaman kills him with a single gunshot. Now Capt. Young, the inexperienced U.S. commander in charge, must make a decision before the situation spins further out of control.
No, we're not in Afghanistan. This action unfolds on a movie screen in an inconspicuous office building in West Los Angeles. The film is called Power Hungry, and it's one of several virtual reality projects being developed for the US military by the Institute for Creative Technologies.
A training exercise follows the 15-minute movie in which game participants can ask questions of Capt. Young and the other characters by typing them into a computer. Advanced word recognition software allows the characters to respond to questions like, "What was your understanding of the mission?" A digital character, meanwhile, guides the review process.
Administered by the University of Southern California, ICT launched in 1999 with a five-year, U.S. $45 million grant from the United States Army. Its mission: To bring some Hollywood razzmatazz to Army war games and training exercises.
It's all part of the US military's mission to transform itself from the bloated behemoth of the Cold War era to a flexible fighting force suited to the kind of asymmetric warfare the Army has faced in, say, Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The Army wanted the entertainment industry to add creativity to their world," said Dick Lindheim, a former television producer and now the executive director of ICT. "They wanted the Hollywood magic."
A few years ago, the U.S. Army invited Lindheim, then in charge of the digital entertainment division at the Paramount Television Group, to design a war simulation exercise. In Lindheim's scenario, participants were asked to advise the National Security Council in a crisis situation involving a brutal drug lord taking over Mexico.
While some participants were given interactive media to use, others were given only pen and paper. "The ones with pen and paper soon got bored," said Lindheim. "Those with computers didn't want to leave the classroom."
The Army hired Lindheim to run ICT.
The institute is housed in an office laid out by Herman Zimmerman, a Star Trek production designer, and it employs an army of "techies" whose job it is to construct training scenarios that will deliver a visceral wallop.
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