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Army's Next-Gen Training Tools: SMBs Invited To Compete

Military asks small and midsize businesses to create wearable communications gear and tech that mimics feeling of explosions and bullets.

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The Army is seeking small businesses to build new high-tech tools to improve virtual-reality training for soldiers as well as a method for building a communications network right into soldier clothing.

The Army has released its first of three Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) request for proposals for 2012. The program allows high-tech companies with less than 500 employees create technology for the military.

This year's proposal list includes requests for technology innovations that aim to make soldiers' training as well as their combat performance more effective.

For the former, the Army is looking for technology to adapt standard computer games to train soldiers, as well as a solution to make the shock of explosions and bullets feel more real to soldiers who are in virtual training environments.

In its Tools for Adapting Computer Based Tutors to Commercial Games, the Army is seeking research and development to adapt tutoring systems such as AutoTutor to computer games so they can be used for soldier training.

[ Improved communications is crucial to the nation's security. Read DARPA Wants Wireless Network For Satellite Clusters. ]

The RFP notes that while computer games are an "attractive option" for training, they lack any feedback options for soldiers to see if they are actually learning from them.

Therefore, "a tool to easily adapt and integrate existing tutoring systems (e.g., AutoTutor) with game parameters (e.g., player behaviors/actions) would go a long way toward expanding their use as training systems in the absence of human tutors," according to the RFP.

The Army already uses a variety of computer game-like virtual training systems to prepare soldiers for combat situations, but primarily they are custom designed tools for the military and not commercial, off-the-shelf games.

Virtual training is also the subject of another SBIR RFP, but this one wants virtual training environments to have more of an impact on soldiers--literally. The Haptic Feedback for a Virtual Explosion proposal wants a company to create an "impulse force" that could simulate being hit with debris from an explosion or a bullet to enhance the virtual training experience for soldiers.

The Army doesn't want the technology to harm the soldier or require him or her to wear any special equipment. However, the military believes it would be beneficial for soldiers to receive "tactile feedback" more realistically in a virtual environment rather than how it's provided today--through devices attached to the user that create a constant sensation themselves, or through the use of fans and air cannons.

Suiting up soldiers directly with the means to communicate is another aim the Army hopes to achieve through an SBIR proposal called Design Tool for Electronic Textile Clothing Systems. The proposal seeks the creation of a software tool that can design a wearable electronic network that's build right into the clothes a soldier wears.

"A wearable transparent network is highly desired for the individual soldier and one method of achieving this capability is to integrate an electronic network into the soldier's protective clothing system," according to the proposal. Such a system would eliminate cables and other "snag hazards," and reduce the weight and bulk of what soldiers have to wear in the field, according to the Army. Though the military already has materials and methods for creating an electronic textile-based clothing system, it does not have computer tools to plan, design, and construct the system.

The Army will evaluate proposal submissions in January and February, select proposals in March, and make SBIR awards in May.

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