At DARPA, virtual reality is more than a toy

For virtual reality to become more than another quick-to-fade fad like 3-D televisions or the overhyped Google Glass, it needs the type of careful nurturing that only government can give it through long-term developmental investments, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency​ program manager​ told a crowd of VR enthusiasts Monday.

For virtual reality to become more than another quick-to-fade fad like 3-D televisions or the overhyped Google Glass, it needs the type of careful nurturing that only government can give it through long-term developmental investments, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager told a crowd of VR enthusiasts Monday.

While many of the virtual reality applications from the commercial sector come off more like “toy games,” the government is better positioned to foster ideas that take more time to bear fruit, said DARPA’s Trung Tran.

“We fund those weird ideas that don’t seem to have an immediate return. And that’s the difference I think,” Tran said. “The problem with the commercial world is it’s very [return on investment-driven]. So when you look at the commercial world, it’s not really willing to make the investments that are looking 10 to 15 years out.”

“That’s really the question you have to ask yourself,” he said. “What can you do with real things as opposed to toys?”


Federal agencies have a better vantage to develop these game-changing technologies, Tran argued, because they aren’t “slaves” to turning a profit.

DARPA is widely recognized for playing a major role developing of some of the world’s most important technologies, like the internet and GPS. 

“If you want to build stuff that only lasts five years, yeah, you can work in Silicon Valley and chase the dollar right? But if you want to build things that make how we live our lives going forward… I think that’s really the difference,” the DARPA program manager opined.

One of the “real things” the agency recently built is a “huge” three-room virtual reality system in Boston, Massachusetts, which monitors soldiers’ brain activity and biometrics “to see how they deal with stress under fire,” Tran said

In the system, soldiers don’t use a joystick, wear goggles or walk on a treadmill to move about in the space. Instead, sensors on their clothing track their movements to make the situation feel more realistic, and the environment changes with them.


“You have to play like you fight; you have to be in that world,” Tran said.

The system even includes wind and environmental effects, and a responsive floor that can throw soldiers to mimic an explosion.

“One of the things that we’re really concerned about is how a soldier would handle stress differently — that’s what [posttraumatic stress disorder] comes from,” Tran said.  “And so you don’t know until the bullets fly whether you run away like in “Saving Private Ryan,” or if you run into the battle. And it matters to the soldiers around you which one you do. And so part of the training is to evaluate the soldier for their effectiveness in combat.”

Tran said he is looking for “companies or people who can build fully immersive 3-D environments,” noting wryly, “I’m not talking about Oculus Rift — who cares about that?”

Indeed, DARPA is looking for innovative approaches to a future problems, he said, not just any VR idea.


Tran said his team is also looking for virtual environments to immerse people in a space in real-time — “send a drone [or a camera] into a room, map out the room, and then put ourselves in the room,” he said — and advanced augmented reality technologies.

Augmented reality, however, comes with some concerns, Tran explained, referring to the “Pokemon Go problem.”

“You don’t want people running into buildings, or distracted by stuff because you throw a bunch of crap on the screen,” Tran said. What he is looking to invest in, he said, are sophisticated approaches to augmented reality that “focus the people on what’s important without distracting them.”

The agency has already made investments in each of those areas, Tran noted, and is looking to build on those efforts, planning to release several Small Business Innovation Research solicitations soon, he said.

Ultimately, Tran wants to work with companies and individuals who are looking ahead in such a way that their ideas transcend what he considers fads, like wearing goggles to experience VR.


“If you want to follow the crowd with what’s available today, then I’m not really interested in talking to you,” Tran said. “If you’re looking to try to really innovate… then DARPA’s really interested in talking to you.”

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