We met on a dirt path on the bank of a rocky foothill overlooking a small rural town. At least the path appeared to be dirt; it was light brown, but there was no way to kick it to see if dust would rise. Modeled on Southern Afghanistan, the small cluster of buildings in front of us included an open-air market, a mosque, small charcoal colored buildings with few windows and low walls of the same material. At the periphery, a creek ran near fields of corn and red poppies. We saw only a few Afghani people there; we chatted briefly with them in English. We were a group of artists, curators, art historians, and students, and for the time being, virtual U.S. military ground troops. This Afghani village existed on a local area network (LAN) of computers in an office park in Silicon Beach. Though seemingly unrelated, our artistic goals were in some ways aligned with the troops who train in this virtual place. We had come to draw, intent on exploring this computer-generated space and sketching what we saw. But we also aimed to gain situational awareness of the environment through careful observation and critical assessment of the landscape. Our purpose was to gain a better understanding of what it might be like to inhabit a real war zone in Afghanistan, thus making this seemingly remote conflict a bit more comprehensible to us.
However, the focus and methods of our concurrent roles in the arts and the military differed, and sometimes conflicted. As artists, we were engaging with the politics of representation, while as members of a platoon, we were trying to walk across town without encountering an improvised explosive device (IED). Our host in the computer lab gave us the following instructions for the latter goal: Use the map and previous player data to avoid frequently traveled pathways, look out for suspicious behavior among locals, and communicate with each other. However, as artists, we were also wandering independently in a dérive-like fashion, exploring and sketching the area as we went. We most certainly didn’t have the experience of military personnel, nor was our platoon’s directive a very coordinated one; we had little sense of the urgency of an IED threat.
Last fall, Incendiary Traces brought this group to the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) where this Dismounted Interactive Counter-IED Environment for Training (DICE-T) was designed. We went there to consider how their landscape imagery helps military personnel visualize war zones, and in turn, how it might therefore also help civilians picture them better. The ICT is a University affiliated collaborator of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. There, film and game industry artists work with computer and social scientists to study and develop immersive technologies for military training and other purposes. With artificial intelligence, graphics, virtual reality and narrative immersive techniques, they strive to make virtual humans and simulated environments effectively realistic. In other words, they aim to make virtual experiences parallel to real ones, to sidestep limitations of the physical world like violence, distance, and human necessities.
This involves two parallel forms of research – study of human responses to virtual realities, and development of new, more effective virtual experiences. Realism is king here, including keen representational rendering, graphic design and storytelling. However, as Toro Costaño explains in his essay for Incendiary Traces Visualizing War: Virtual Reality, Simulation and Physical Battlefields, users’ perception is a complex process that only starts with sight. Making virtual reality convincing involves more than high-resolution simulations. Virtual environments are a delicate balance of sensorial cues and other modes of recognition, including abstract ones. The ICT engages various types of simulation and abstraction for diverse purposes.
We compared two examples at the ICT, focusing on environments rather than virtual humans. In the case of DICE-T, the landscapes depicted are geotypical: though modeled on Southern Afghanistan, they are fictional and abstracted. The village has attributes common to the region, but the scope of detail is limited. The environment contains only key elements to shape a tightly controlled scenario. The town’s small size and few inhabitants make it possible to get across within 15 minutes. They’re also far less realistic than many popular military style video games. The point of simulation here is to practice a focused set of observation, navigation and communication skills in a rough sketch of a far more complex reality. Geotypical environments like DICE-T’s are intended to engage trainees in visualizing the conflict zones they will inhabit without overwhelming them with distracting details.
In other cases, specific details can serve critical purposes. In Bravemind, the ICT uses geospecific terrain as a post-traumatic stress therapy tool. Simulations of real Afghani and Iraqi cities and desert environments are used to help military personnel recall their experiences in these war zones. The landscapes are modeled from real terrain data including photographs and lidar. (Scientists frequently use lidar, a laser measuring system, to investigate terrestrial phenomena.) In tandem with the controllable geospecific terrain (including weather), Bravemind includes a rumble box under the user’s feet, smell generator, and head mounted display with 3D directional sound. Specific details are key to prompting memories of experiences in the places depicted, such as “I recognize that market. I bought a can of Coke there. And that’s the tree we stopped by. Let’s get out of the Humvee now and walk in that direction, like I did then.”
While the verisimilitude the environments achieved was impressive, we also found them a bit baffling. This may have been because our approach to observing and critically analyzing them was different from military trainees. One Incendiary Traces participant clicked on everything to find out the object’s threat levels, indicated by color code; another detained everyone he encountered to provoke video game-like violence. (He did get blown up, his screen draped in cartoonish dripping blood.) Another participant wanted to see what would happen if he went AWOL, so he climbed to the top of a mountain away from the town, falling into a shattered geometric abyss on the other side. Many of us also sought out and sketched traditionally picturesque views.
After more than an hour sketching in DICE-T, we left the ICT office building on Jefferson Boulevard to debrief in a park across the street. Sitting on modern wood seating surrounded by native marshland grasses, we discussed the complex landscapes of war – the ICT office, real and simulated distant desert towns, the military bases and hospitals where the simulations are shipped and used. We had visited and sketched at the ICT to see how the military pictures distant battle zones for their personnel, thus improving our own understanding of these places. For Incendiary Traces, drawing landscapes on site is intended to ground the ostensible remoteness of war, which American civilians usually experience only through media images. However, sketching these simulations raised questions about the material nature of battlefields today. If the military “occupies” both virtual and real Afghani villages, are both of these locations conflict zones? If so, are battlefields closer to home than we think? Drawing at the ICT provided a new starting point for comprehending these questions.