July 1, 2021
Staff Accomplishment

Creating the Art of the Possible

Virtual reality tool generates training environment for chemical and biological threats

VR training

PNNL-developed virtual reality tool allows trainers to present different missions to the trainees. They even have to select the proper gear to wear on the mission.

(Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

When training for chemical and biological threats, in-person exercises and drills can be very limited due to the hazardous nature of the agent. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Chemical and Biological Technologies Department (CBD) wanted a better solution to be able to train warfighters to combat chemical and biological threats. To help create an innovative solution, DTRA looked to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and its sponsored summer internship program.

Each summer, PNNL hosts an Innovative Chem-Bio Defense Application Development Competition to foster new and creative approaches for reducing chemical and biological threats for DTRA. This past summer was the seventh annual 10-week competition, which challenged 12 graduate students to work in three interdisciplinary teams and each develop a virtual reality (VR) capability to enhance warfighter mission readiness.

“The interns were tasked with creating a new kind of VR environment in a reconfigurable underground tunnel system,” said Lauren Charles, DVM, PhD, a senior data scientist at PNNL and manager of the competition. “We wanted to see how realistically they could simulate a chem-bio release event where the trainee actually can feel the symptoms, select the right gear, and complete a specific mission. This is something that could never be accomplished in a real life training scenario.”

The software needed to be able to be modified and reconfigured by the trainer based on a variety of scenario details. This would allow the VR environment to be reusable, changed to accommodate different situations, and help prepare warfighters for various missions.

VR training 2
Example of first-person view of items in the subterranean tunnels. (Image by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

After six weeks, the interns presented their work in a two-day competition where an ultimate winner was decided. However, this past year, all three applications had features that DTRA CBD was interested in so PNNL subject matter experts combined these into the final VR training toolkit.

The resulting PNNL-developed tool allows trainers to present different missions to the trainees, including site exploitation, recon, and even rescue. After a trainer sets up the scenario, trainees don a VR headset to walk through the environment in a first-person view and experience various health effects from exposure to specific chemical and biological threat materials. Throughout the training, the trainee receives feedback on how they are performing based on events happening on screen.

“By combining the best features from all three we created a tool that DTRA will be able to demo across different potential users and show the art of the possible for the future of chem-bio training,” said Charles. In addition to her work at PNNL, Charles also holds a joint appointment as a research professor at the Paul Allen School for Global Animal Health, Washington State University,