BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. –
Editor's note: Last names were omitted for security reasons.
For a moment, an Airman stands in a lobby surrounded by the hustle of the duty day, then, as he slips on a virtual reality headset, he is transported to a different place and a different frame of mind.
Conversations fade away, and people coming and going seamlessly disappear. To him, reality is now the three dimensional cabin of a C-130 Hercules. With one click of a remote, the back door opens to reveal clear, blue skies and fighter jets flanking the back end of the aircraft. With another click, the side doors disappear, allowing him to step out over sky and view the wing and propellers.
“It’s amazing how quickly you forget you’re actually just in a tiny lobby, and you’re not in a C-130 walking around,” said Staff Sgt. James, 9th Intelligence Squadron non-commissioned officer in charge of optical bar camera operations.
The new VR headset and remote, provided to the squadron by 25th Air Force Cryptologic Office, Cryptologic Force Management, is only the beginning of a new initiative at the 548th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group: creating an innovation ecosystem. This culture aims to foster new opportunities and introduce technologies, like VR, to the intelligence world - with a long-term objective of being introduced Air Force-wide, giving Airmen new capabilities in training, operations and building resiliency, according to Chief Master Sgt. Ian Eishen, 9th IS superintendent.
From a training perspective, James said having virtual reality provides a major advantage in learning how to identify specific parts of an aircraft.
“If I’m just showing you on a piece of paper with a line drawing, that’s one way of teaching it, but actually being able to put on a VR headset and walk up to that aircraft and see it from all angles, I feel like that’s really going to drive home the point and some of the identification features we’re trying to teach people,” said James.
Another benefit to using VR is that it is tailored to a generation who grew up in a digital, technological age.
“It provides a different type of training for people who learn differently,” said Eishen. “You actually get to immerse yourself in it rather than just reading about things.”
Eishen said Airmen who self-identify an interest in learning VR technology will be given the time and tools to get in a lab and design new uses for it.
“Because it’s virtual, they can go in there and they can fail,” said Eishen. “When they succeed on something, we can give them the tools and training to make what they’re doing better and use what they’re learning to make the mission better, and we can send that out to all the different units across the Air Force.”
That additional training will start with a five-month enlisted fellowship where select Airmen will have the opportunity to learn from industry professionals and bring that knowledge back to the unit.
“VR development skills are very sought after in the outside world,” said Eishen. “We can give them this training and allow them to do things to help the Air Force, and now they’ve got a skillset and credential they can use on the outside as well.”
Not only does the utilization of VR assist with training capabilities, it also provides an added use operationally.
“If your customer is somebody on the ground, I can’t send people out or get them deployed on the ground all the time, but by using VR, we can put people in some of the scenarios that customers or guys down range may be in,” said Eishen. “To understand the mindset of how to be on the ground or how to work through that is a big deal, and it allows you to do your job better.”
Not only can VR be used by intelligence Airmen, but also by pilots and battlefield Airmen. Eishen believes VR can be used while simultaneously video conferencing with other units or a product manufacturer.
“I can be a maintainer here at Beale and talk to another maintainer from another unit or the company that made the component,” said Eishen. “We can get into a VR world together, and I can now learn and be developed by that maintainer, engineer or designer building that piece and troubleshoot.”
Using VR isn’t all work and no play though, it’s also about finding creative ways to take care of Airmen. Through VR, Airmen can transcend time, space and physical barriers to experience a part of the world they may never have the opportunity to see otherwise, while also providing a relaxing detox from high-stress environments.
“We’ve got guys with a very stressful job on the floor, and if we can pull them out of that job for at least a little bit, even 20 minutes, to sit up on a mountain or pretend to fly, it gets them out of where they’re at and into something else,” said Eishen. “Whether it’s allowing them to meditate, think or just escape, they can escape in there.”
There is endless potential and impact in bringing VR to the forefront at Beale, said Eishen.
“If we create a good ecosystem, we can make sure that everybody is ready to develop,” he said. “In a year from now, we’ll be way better than we were today, and we’ll just continue to get better.”
Eishen knows not everyone will be interested in VR, but said not to worry, this is only the beginning of new opportunities to work with the latest and greatest technologies in existence, and it’s just the beginning of the innovation ecosystem culture.
“Not everybody is passionate about VR or computers, and that’s ok,” said Eishen. “The people that are, this is for them; the people that aren’t, we have other things that will hopefully spark their interest. This just happens to be the first.”