Recent breakthroughs in handheld gaming and mobile virtual reality (VR) tech are poised to transform Navy training from schoolhouses to the fleet. The Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) worked with learning leader, Gronstedt Group, to harness this new tech in providing training directly to sailors at their points of need. Working under a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA), we converted its Multipurpose Reconfigurable Training System (MRTS) 3D® into simulations that can be played on affordable stand-alone handheld gaming PCs and mobile VR headsets. Portable commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) devices promise to cut the cord from classrooms and stationary computing, providing sailors with the opportunity to practice intensively through realistic simulations just moments before these skills are needed in actual environments.

 

This change is part of the Navy’s broader transition from an industrial model of sending sailors to a schoolhouse, to a modern approach that brings training directly to sailors in the fleet. Congestion and delays in the training pipelines cost $400 million annually (according to Navy Personnel Command analysis), and skills acquired in a one-and-done classroom event decay rapidly. The “Ready Relevant Learning” strategy aims to reduce cost and increase proficiency by delivering modernized and ongoing learning to sailors in the flow of work. Instead of waiting around to schedule classes, warfighters need to move seamlessly to a digital practice space that mirrors their real-life workplace. This demonstration project of VR and handheld gaming simulations has garnered rave reviews from a new generation of sailors who have spent more time gaming than in classrooms throughout their lives.

 

VR submarine sim

 

We created a VR simulation that completely engulfs users. Sailors step into a virtual submarine machinery room of such convincing fidelity that they experience a real sense of being there. Turning valves and tightening bolts, they feel tactile vibrations in their hands and hear the diesel engine roar to life when started. It can be experienced in stand-alone VR headsets that are portable and easily deployable shipboard. Sailors don’t need cords or a PC, and they can access training content seated or standing, self-paced or multiplayer.

 

Anyone who hasn’t experienced the startling sensation of being transported to a virtual environment and performing hands-on tasks under stress, like troubleshooting a flooded diesel engine in a submarine machinery room, probably won’t appreciate how far mobile VR technology has come already. The feeling of presence is so convincing that students forget they’re participating in a simulation. Users directly pick up a wrench with their hands, fit it onto a bolt, and turn it, just as they would in the real world. The hyper-realistic 3D models, directional sound, and vibrating hand controllers “hack their senses” of sight, feeling and hearing. Fully absorbed, sailors lose track of time and enter a state of “flow” as they learn and practice skills in a safe environment. User testers gave the VR program a perfect score and described it saying, “You felt like you are actually working on the system and not just a screen.”

 

Handheld gaming PC sim

 

When comfort, space or cybersecurity aboard ships make VR use challenging, sailors can still engage with simulations on handheld gaming PCs. These devices have skyrocketed in popularity in the consumer space and offer an ideal form factor for training aboard a moving ship with limited physical space. Popularized with the Game Boy in the 1990s, the recent success of the Nintendo Switch and the Valve Steam Deck has paved the way for a new era of high-powered, portable, all-in-one handhelds. The recent arrival of handheld Windows 11 gaming devices can bring learning simulations onboard ships. Similar to the VR version, the PC program we developed is self-paced with tutorials, corrective feedback loops, and scaffolding. Using game controllers to navigate a virtual submarine, the user experience feels like a gaming console. Game controllers have been the prime 3D flatscreen interface for three decades and are second nature for the current generation of sailors. The same program can run on standard PCs with game controllers as well. These handheld companions let sailors log countless practice rounds and repetitions, perfectly complementing the deep immersion and hands-on VR practice.

 

A new generation of portable simulations promises to accelerate learning at scale, save lives, sharpen skills, flatten the learning curve, and boost individual readiness and fleet readiness at the point of need, whether it’s in port or underway.

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