by Richard Foster
Rifle fire cracks intermittently like kernels of popcorn as you make your way hesitantly down a generic digital back street of a war-torn Middle East town. A wounded U.S. soldier lies on the street ahead. Townspeople run across the road, into the sights of your M-16 rifle.
Then a message flashes on the screen below you: “Treat Person.” You drag the soldier off the street, avoiding gunfire as you pull out your medic’s kit and choose from a menu of medical actions like “clear airway.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare this isn’t.
Welcome to CIRTS (Complex Incident Response Training System), a first-person-shooter-style video game developed by Portsmouth-based defense contractor MYMIC to train Army combat medics.
Military modeling and simulation programs like CIRTS have “saved millions of lives and billions of dollars,” says MYMIC’s president, William L. Younger Jr. Now companies like his are seeking to use their modeling and simulation know-how to expand into private-sector markets like health care and manufacturing. “This technology is going to be used as a basic part of business enterprise in the future.”
Founded in 2000, MYMIC is one of several Virginia technology firms specializing in modeling and simulation, a $1.8 billion business in Virginia, employing more than 11,700 private-sector workers. Almost all of these businesses are clustered in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and their biggest customers are the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Virginia’s modeling and simulation industry received a blow last summer with the closure of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, a major patron and incubator for contractors in Hampton Roads.
Nevertheless, the closing shouldn’t have a long-lasting impact, asserts John A. Sokolowski, executive director of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) at Old Dominion University. While there were some initial job losses (VMASC had to lay off 11 full-time technical service employees because of the closure), most of those workers already have found other positions, Sokolowski says.
VMASC works with the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s modeling and simulation program on projects such as a virtual operating room. Medical students are trained using video screens, actors and mannequins to recreate the operating environment in hospitals or under wartime field conditions. (EVMS helped develop MYMIC’s CIRTS training software.) EVMS opened the virtual operating room in August as part of its new, 25,000-square-foot, $10 million-plus Center for Simulation and Immersive Learning.
“You may practice CPR or chest suturing in a classroom, but if you’re doing it when all of a sudden someone’s shooting at you or yelling at you, you lose some of the focus on your task. If you train people more like the environment they’re going to be practicing in, they won’t be surprised and their performance doesn’t degrade,” says C. Donald Combs, vice president and dean of the EVMS School of Health Professions.
To promote and develop modeling and simulation technologies and standards for the U.S. health-care industry, VMASC and EVMS jointly established the National Center for Collaboration in Medical Modeling and Simulation (NCCMMS) through an act of Congress last year. The center recently received a $600,000 federal grant to build two laboratories.
“From a Virginia business point of view, what we’re trying to do is leverage the enormous amount of expertise that our local industry has developed in contracting with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security and other agencies and use those abilities to improve the delivery of health care,” Combs says.
Even though the modeling and simulation industry is about 20 years old, the health-care industry has just started to notice what it can offer, Sokolowski says. Some of that delay was the result of the industry’s tendency to be slow to change because of regulations and red tape, he believes, and some of it is due to the fact that the modeling and simulation industry recently has been able to show real results and value through its military applications.
Also, Combs says, the medical establishment tends to take a conservative stance toward adopting training practices or technologies, such as electronic record keeping.
Other modeling and simulation players in Virginia are looking to private-sector industries. MYMIC’s biggest customer outside the defense sector is the Virginia Port Authority, for which it creates software simulations analyzing the effect of events such as natural disasters, terrorism and bridge closures on cargo shipping. Now MYMIC is hoping to sell its services to the manufacturing sector.
Some researchers already are finding mainstream applications for their military modeling and simulation work. Leigh McCue, an associate professor in aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech, created a free app for Apple’s iTunes store called SCraMP (Small Craft Motion Program) that monitors a small boat’s motion and warns the operator if his or her craft is in danger of capsizing.
“We were taking research we’ve been doing for the defense sector and with just a very simplified approach, you could boil it down and put in the hands of anybody,” she says.
In about two decades, the modeling and simulation industry has gotten to the point that it can create portable technologies for smart phones. Considering the future of modeling and simulation, Paul Gustavson says, “it almost sounds like the world of science fiction,” the stuff of “Star Trek” holodecks.
Gustavson is chief technology officer for Fredericksburg-based SimVentions, which provides systems engineering and modeling and simulation services to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in nearby Dahlgren.
One of SimVentions’ co-founders, Gustavson has worked in modeling and simulation since its infancy in the late 1980s. He foresees a day not long into the future when field medics and paramedics will be guided in life-saving medical procedures on mobile devices by a surgeon assisting them remotely, utilizing simulation technologies being pioneered now.
“It’s so exciting to see how it’s grown and matured over the last 20 years,” Gustavson says, “and I think we’re just scratching the surface in terms of how we can apply it and use it going forward.”
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