Q&A: Aviation and Defense Industry Leaders Discuss Microsoft Simulation Platform

REDMOND, Wash. – Feb. 20, 2008 – Since its debut in November 2007, Microsoft ESP has seen strong interest in the “serious games” market for simulations used in several industries to train professionals. Microsoft ESP fills a longstanding need for developing such simulations, providing a flexible and powerful platform to build a wide range of training solutions quickly. 

Already the platform is in use by leading defense industry contractors for a variety of purposes. Recently the world’s leading aviation training company, FlightSafety International, and multinational aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin joined others such as Northrop Grumman and SAIC in adopting the Microsoft ESP platform.

To get an idea of the benefits of Microsoft ESP for these long-established contractors, PressPass spoke with Chris Weinberg, Director of Business Development for FlightSafety International, Charlie Hargraves, 3D Immersive Virtual Environment Technologies Program Manager for Lockheed Martin, and Shawn Firminger, Manager of Microsoft’s ACES Studio, which oversees ESP.

PressPass:  How does having a visual simulation platform like Microsoft ESP benefit companies in the serious games market?

Firminger: We think what we’re bringing to this market will ease the development of simulation training solutions. Access to this kind of software platform should greatly expand the ecosystem of people who can create rich immersive applications that previously might have been too expensive. Companies are excited to see Microsoft enter this arena, and the fact that we’ve chosen to enter with a platform expands the potential opportunities for industry partners and customers to develop truly compelling solutions, which we hope will help grow the simulation market overall.

Weinberg: Other solutions require significant interface work between the host simulation and the visual simulation. Microsoft ESP helps ease that requirement, even allowing us to include the platform directly into the same computing engine as the simulation.

Microsoft ESP will also provide pre-built flight simulation logic and graphical components that can be used as-is, in combination with existing simulation software or with new simulation components. The Microsoft ESP platform provides simulation capabilities enabling training, learning management and configuration management tools and applications to be integrated into a robust solution for our customers. This solution can then be tailored to the specific training application.

Hargraves: Immersive technologies are of particular interest to us and to our customer base. As we improve our capability to gather increasingly large amounts of data, and as that data grows increasingly complex, we need to be able to simplify the way the end user can view, analyze and assess it. Presenting a warfighter or an analyst with a never-ending spreadsheet of numbers and text doesn’t do much for their situational awareness. But overlaying that same data on to a three-dimensional, immersive map can help them quickly and intuitively ascertain what’s most important to them. And that begins to deliver real value for the mission. Technologies like Microsoft ESP can help us accomplish that goal.

PressPass: How do those benefits translate into value for end customers?

Firminger: Although the market consists of a variety of customers and vendors, solutions have been costly, requiring proprietary technology hardware and software. Generally, a company seeking a new custom simulation solution would require several licenses for tools, content and the engine; wait months for development; and spend from US$750,000 to $3 million or more for the new solution.

We’re turning that around by providing customers a full platform to build new solutions on top of, rather than starting from scratch each time. Our platform features base capabilities needed for a rich simulation experience, including geographical, cultural, environmental and extensive scenery data, along with tools for placing objects, scenery and terrain customization, object activation, special effects and environment controls such as adjustable weather. In the past, simulation development had been limited by lack of tools, funds or a need for costly hardware. Our licensing and cost models are unique, and we believe they are quite advantageous to our customers and partners.

Weinberg: In a constantly-evolving market, our customers depend on our ability to rapidly prototype our training solutions. Similarly, the ability to reduce the time to market is a key factor for the mission-critical training and solutions we provide. In the aviation, marine and military markets we serve, new requirements can emerge quickly. Our ability to deliver a training solution in a timely manner helps to ensure that our customers are fully prepared to complete their missions safely. Therefore, the potential for Microsoft ESP to help reduce our development time and provide the flexibility to deploy the solution around the globe quickly represents a significant benefit to our customers.

Hargraves: From a technology standpoint, solutions built using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies can enable us to develop and deploy new systems faster and at a lower cost. As an integrator, we always prefer to use what’s already available rather than start from scratch. The key for us is to link those systems together in a way that adds value. For instance, we can combine sensor feeds or high-resolution imagery with the Microsoft ESP environment to create an up-to-the-minute, high-fidelity simulation of an area of operations.

PressPass: What are your company’s plans for the platform?  What are you working on now?

Firminger: This first version of Microsoft ESP focuses primarily on civil and military aviation, but ESP will go way beyond flight over time. Version two will add support for ground vehicle operator training, ground operations and additional scenarios. Future versions will focus on building out an even richer and more intense set of location details — on the water, under the water, inside buildings and cities — gradually moving toward social interaction scenarios.

There are other markets as well and we are certainly thinking about how this platform will evolve. In the end, ESP will enable a new ecosystem of Microsoft partners to tap into a variety of industries to better serve customers. What ultimately takes shape is up to industry partners and developers themselves to determine, but right now, partners can build and develop on the Microsoft ESP platform to bring visual simulations to many industries.

Weinberg: We see the Microsoft ESP platform as providing a cost-effective and efficient high-fidelity solution in different areas of training simulation. That could include what we call Distributed Mission Training (DMT) for actual multi-ship, joint forces mission rehearsal; Virtual Instructor (VI) solutions that help trainees learn through simulated environments; a complete record/playback debriefing suite for both simulated and real flights; a Learning Management System (LMS) for user monitoring and tracking, and a Learning Content Management System (LCMS) for configuration management and targeted distribution of training materials.

We are also looking at Microsoft ESP as visualization solution for Matrix, FlightSafety International’s Integrated Training System. The Matrix product line includes high-fidelity classroom, lab and mobile learning tools such as Graphical Flight Simulators, Desk Top Simulators and our interactive simulator debriefing system, SimVu.

Beyond those specifics, Microsoft ESP should help us in our continued development of extensible, high-fidelity, portable training solutions that can be deployed rapidly in locations that lack the infrastructure necessary for many of the conventional training solutions available today.

Hargraves: With a broad portfolio of simulation and training programs, we see several applications for Microsoft ESP. We believe Microsoft ESP could aid in developing next-generation visualization and immersion capabilities.

PressPass: In terms of the technology itself, what can developers do with the platform that they couldn’t before?  What becomes easier with Microsoft ESP?   

Firminger: By easing the development of immersive simulation applications, the possibility for rich virtual environments to be used for new training and other simulation purposes expands. Customers and partners can now focus their energies on building high-value solutions for their customers without the headaches and costs required by managing their own proprietary engines, tools and content.

As a full platform, Microsoft ESP provides a single source for the simulation engine, tools and content. It is also extensible, so our customers and partners can continue to use many of their favorite tools and content to build their solutions. For example, AutoDesk’s popular 3ds Max integrates quite well with ESP. Microsoft ESP offers platform versatility and interaction with other technologies, expanding the range of situations and integration into different systems. Solutions built on Microsoft ESP can scale into a spectrum of COTS hardware platforms, whether those are large systems designed for a specific purpose or small systems designed for laptop computers.

That broad versatility gives the Microsoft ESP platform a cost and time-to-market advantage over proprietary solutions. Traditionally a simulator developed for a specific type of hardware can’t be deployed onto a laptop or a desktop PC. If a company utilizes a software platform they could easily supplement onsite simulator training with an immersive eLearning application that had the same look and feel. And that’s a key difference with Microsoft ESP.

Weinberg: As a COTS platform, Microsoft ESP is poised to help the industry define and create a consistent visual system experience that could ensure consistent customer expectations for visual content and capabilities. It has the potential to reduce the significant investment that is required to maintain multiple visual platforms. Microsoft ESP will also allow for a rapid development of third-party applications. As a visual simulation platform ESP handles all of the essential operating and rendering tasks, freeing up our company to apply our training expertise entirely towards creating solutions that meet our customers’ needs.

Hargraves: Whenever possible, we always prefer to use COTS technologies rather than starting from scratch. As an integrator, we’re looking to connect the dots between discrete technologies rather than reinvent the wheel. Microsoft ESP can save time and money, if implemented correctly, by filling a mission need with an established, mature technology.

In addition, we’re excited about the prospects for delivering a truly immersive environment to our customers. One where data feeds from numerous sensors, systems and people come together in a fully interactive “globe.” Imagine a warfighter being able to visualize a mission from start to finish before leaving base or an analyst overlaying imagery and data sets from multiple sensors on a streamlined, 3-D map. That’s the vision for the kind of capabilities we hope to deliver for our customer. We’re looking at Microsoft ESP as one of many technologies to help make that happen.

PressPass:   What products and services does your company provide to the market for serious games and simulation?  How does this fit into your overall business?

Weinberg: FlightSafety International has been a leading supplier of professional aviation training and simulation equipment to commercial, corporate, military and government flight crews the world over since 1951. More than 75,000 pilots, technicians and other aviation professionals train at FlightSafety International facilities each year using the world’s largest fleet of advanced full flight simulators at 40 training locations.

FlightSafety’s Simulation Systems designs and manufactures advanced full flight simulators, training devices and visual systems that can replicate the operating characteristics of virtually any aircraft or ship. We have designed and manufactured more than 700 visual systems and more than 400 simulators in the last 25 years, including those for more than 60 aircraft types in the past five years alone.

We have extensive experience designing, developing, and integrating training curriculum including highly interactive Computer Based Training (CBT) and InterActive Classroom (IAC) training.

Our simulation equipment is a part of an integrated training system used throughout the company’s network of Learning Centers and by many other leading commercial, government and military organizations worldwide. The simulators are routinely qualified to the highest levels by aviation authorities around the world.

Hargraves: Lockheed Martin delivers training and simulation technologies, as well as live training, to defense and civil customers worldwide. We train nearly 50,000 students per year around the world, providing highly experienced and effective instructors on the ground and in the air.

Our goal is to equip our customers with extraordinarily realistic real-time simulation and expertly trained people in the field. Lockheed Martin specializes in seven critical areas: Civil Government, Commercial, Flight, Mission Rehearsal, Space, Technology Training and Training Development Services, providing each customer with an end-to-end solution designed to meet their needs in any of the three components of the training continuum – virtual, live and constructive.

Our simulation technologies are applied to flight training for combat, transport, rotary wing and commercial aircraft. These simulation products can train pilots from initial qualification training all the way through real-time, virtual combat mission rehearsal. Ground-vehicle simulators train for real-world conditions through photo-realistic synthetic environments, whether that is for armored battalions maneuvering as units or commercial truckers on crowded interstate highways. In addition, we design comprehensive courseware and computer-based classroom training.

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