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Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
How gamers helped bring the Army into virtual reality.
This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. You can find the table of contents, as it unfolds, here.
Last week, I looked at how the VR dream that took hold of gamers in the early 1990s. But it wasn’t just them who had the bug. In 1999, the Army founded the Institute for Creative Technologies, a research and development center in Los Angeles, to build their own advanced training simulations. And they solicited game developers for help. In 2004, I got to visit the secretive lab, and wrote this story, which I’m publishing here for the first time.
by David Kushner, 2004
Early one morning as the bombs fall on Iraq, Major Brent Cummings and Captain Kevin Butler march into the war room. The troops already crowd a conference table. A map of enemy territory glows on a projection screen. An enormous pot of coffee steams. The mission: to set up a defensive front against an opposing force of unknown threats, possibly chemical weapons or suicide bombers. The men gathered here must imagine everything – and anything – that might be thrown the Army’s way. “We’re ready,” barks one of the guys, “let’s rock!”
Cummings and Butler - stocky torsos, narrow eyes, freshly mowed flattops - survey the team. Compared to them, these dudes don’t exactly look like the most rocking military bunch. To their left is Rob Sears, a long haired gamer in a flowery Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and two tiny hoop earrings. Next to him is a pencil-necked geek in a white Polo shirt and glasses. A heavy, bearded guy gnaws at a bagel.
“What if the bad guys have like mortars and stuff?” asks a spiky-haired punk in a black leather jacket. Cummings and Butler puff. “That doesn’t make us nervous,” Cumming says, “I don’t want to sound macho like we can defend anything and kick anyone’s ass, but we are the Army.”
This strangely enough, is Hollywood, and these are not your standard troops. They’re screenwriters, video gamers, coders, and TV producers. They’re not plotting a war, they’re plotting a computer game. A tactical training simulation already in use in Afghanistan, it’s one of the unusual products to come from this most unusual place, the Institute for Creative Technologies – one of the most unique, and uniquely American, collaborations in military history. As James Korris, the ICT’s creative director says, “it’s the wackiest think tank in the Army.”
Funded by the Army since 1999, this research and development facility at the University of Southern California corrals the hottest talent in film and gaming to build the most futuristic and immersive training technology on the planet: from video games to virtual reality. “The basic idea was why can’t the Army be more like Disney?” says Michael Macedonia, Chief Technology Officer for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation.
Steven Spielberg paid a visit. Spike Jones reported for duty. So did an underground cartoonist, an Andy Warhol prodigy, and a bunch of flaming liberals you’d never expect to be in bed with the Uncle Sam. “That’s the gamble,” says Richard Lindheim, the former Paramount executive and Star Trek producer who now heads the Institute. “You’ve got Hollywood crazies, computer nerds, and military stiff necks. Can you make them talk to each other?”
As the meeting in the war room breaks, Cummings and Butler march outside for grub. In the parking lot is a truck with the words “No War” scrawled on the window.
Butler grunts, “Freaks!”
The ICT might be the weirdest romance between the military and entertainment industry, but it’s not the first. Frank Capra and John Houston shot propaganda films during World War II. Military scientists glommed from science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke. Marines modified Doom for training. And the entertainment world gleaned plenty in return. Some of the grooviest technology we play with today – the Internet, video games, computer graphics – sprang from musty, government labs.
By the late 1990s, however, the entertainment industry was getting noticeably ahead of the curve. Personal computers were growing more powerful. The joystick nation was coming of age. Suddenly, a few geeks in a dorm room could churn out a video game that looked way cooler than the multimillion-dollar virtual reality simulations churned out by Federal eggheads. The Army wanted in.
“We realized that it was time for us to go out and do some wild and crazy things,” says Macedonia.. And it didn’t get wild-and-crazier than Hollywood.
When the phone rang in Dick Lindheim’s office at Paramount one day in August 1999, the Army had this request: “We want you to build the Holodeck!” As depicted in Star Trek the Next Generation, the Holodeck is a powerful technology that creates a totally immersive and convincing virtual world – sights, sounds, smells, the works. Press a few buttons and you’re standing in Jerusalem. Press another and you’re in Jakarta. It’s also complete science fiction. But the Army’s mission was serious.
“They realized that to train the soldier of the future you need to simulate all these different places around the world,” says Lindheim, a hip granddad with snow white hair. “The Holodeck was the vision,” he says, “We would develop the applications.”
With a $45 million contract, the ICT took over three floors of an unassuming office building near the beach in Marina del Ray. Keeping with the sci-fi theme, the Institute commissioned Howard Zimmerman, production designer on the Star Trek series and films, to design the Army’s Earthbound enterprise. Instead of cubicles, Zimmerman designed stylish “cubunkles” with built-in beds for the inevitable all-nighters. With lots of sensual wood and circular windows, the place is anything but military drab. And yeah, Trekkies, there are doors that open with a swoosh.
To populate this dream space, Lindheim had to recruit his troops – presumably not an easy task in a town full of lefties. Lindheim, a liberal himself, banked on others sharing his reason for signing up with the Army’s kooky plan. “The last thing I was interested in was working for the military,” Lindheim says, “But what we do in Hollywood isn’t brain surgery. We’re just making TV shows and movies. Eventually you realize you’re having fun, but you’re making mud pies. The ICT is an opportunity to say, ‘can I take my expertise and turn it into something that could have a real impact and help people?’”
As word spread around the sushi bars and studio lots, an unlikely assortment of tinseltown stars said yes. Paul Debevec, the Berkeley whiz kid who invented the bullet time effects for The Matrix, signed up to head ICT’s computer graphics research. Ron Cobb, a designer on Star Wars and anti-Bush underground cartoonist, took the reigns of production design. Dave Ayers, screenwriter of The Fast and the Furious and Training Day, lent his story skills.
But nearly everyone who came on board had reservations. “I was reticent of the military connection,” says Randall Kleiser, director of hits including Grease and Blue Lagoon, “I didn’t want to be involved in anything that had to do with killing people.”
The Army felt skeptical too. “It was like dogs sniffing each other,” says Major Cummings, one of the first Army representatives to visit the ICT, “all I saw were a bunch of guys with John Denver haircuts and body piercings and Tevas. They had some sensitivity about the Army’s real mission.”
What mission is that?
“Killing people,” he says, “and breaking things.”
“Is this a game?” says a disembodied voice as I stare into darkness. “Or is this a serious mission?”
The floor rumbles. I open my eyes. I’m standing inside a dank, black tunnel. Water drips in sickening puddles. I gaze up. Bats hang from the ceiling. I creep forward into the haze. Something’s on the ground. I crouch. A dead fish. A blast sounds from my left. I crane around, noticing something else down in the ooze. It’s a baby doll. Or a baby. With severed limbs.
This is the Sensory Environments Evaluation a.k.a. the SEE Project, one of the more immersive, and disturbing, virtual worlds being brewed up at the ICT. As I slip off my virtual reality helmet and goggles, I’m standing in a dark bare studio with several attending artists and researchers.
“That’s good you made it all the way through,” says Jackie Morie, a veteran Disney animator who now heads up this project. Morie has an arty shirt with a red stenciled feline, and the laid back humor of a California hippie. “This woman the other day didn’t last very long,” she says, “It wigged her out too much.”
Then again, that’s kind of the idea. The purpose of this - and many of the other dozen or so projects at the ICT - is to explore how these immersive worlds can evoke a range of emotions and, thus, create more compelling training experiences. “We’re trying to create situations that emotionally evoke the problems these military guys have to work through,” say Jon Gratch, an artificial intelligence scientist at the ICT. “The Army wants to train leaders,” Lindheim explains, “that means these simulations can’t feel like games, they have to feel real.”
The 95 artists and engineers at the ICT are concocting all kinds of weird science to make these worlds more real. Morie shows me a Frisbee-sized ring accessorized with aromatherapy vials. “This is a scent collar we’re working on,” she says, “next time you’re in that tunnel and see the bats, we could put smell of guano in there.”
Upstairs, Debevec built a giant, LED-studded sphere called the Light Stage. When you stand inside, it can reproduce the precise lighting environments from the white sun shining down on the Parthenon to the red glow coming through the stained glass window at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. These images can then be transferred into a virtual world with astonishing clarity.
Another project is FlatWorld, a room made of digital walls that can create a virtual world experience without clunky goggles or headsets. Standing inside, you might interact with a solider facing a crisis in some Middle Eastern village. To enhance the realism, artificial intelligence engineers are creating virtual humans who can be as defensive, distressed, or insulting as any person. Taken together, these new technologies could immerse trainees in a safe, virtual Baghdad without leaving the states. “You can create veterans who’ve never seen combat,” says Ayers.
But many at the ICT prefer not to think about such hawkish applications. “I’ve never taken strongly to the ‘Army’ connection here,” says Jerome Gray, a veteran film and TV producer who now serves as ICT’s director of strategic initiatives. “I consider myself liberal,” he says, “so what’s interesting to me is that technologies have applications in other areas. The military is just financing our work.”
Gratch, the A.I. scientist, agrees. “Honestly, I see the military stuff as a way to fund my research,” he says, “But it’s a queasy relationship, frankly. The reason you’re interested in science is because you want to help the world. As a liberal person you can tell yourself your making stuff to train people, but it’s difficult to predict the ultimate outcome of the work you do.”
Debevec, another hot property attracted by the deep pockets and research potential of the ICT, is more succinct about the military’s use of his special effects. “I don’t think about it,” he says.
On 9/11, however, the virtual world of art and research gave way to very different reality. The Army wanted an impromptu summit at the ICT with Hollywood’s best and brightest. Behind closed doors, directors including Spike Jones and David Fincher, screenwriters such as Ayers and John Milius (Apocalypse Now), and, as Korris says, about two dozen of the other “most skilled and famous storytellers in town” met with Army brass to brainstorm scenarios of terrorist attacks.
“Look at Condoleezza Rice,” says Ayers, “no one can picture planes flying into buildings. A little imagination can’t hurt.”
For the ICT dreamers, 9/11 was a wake up call. “When you work on a TV show,” Korris says, “your biggest decision is whether or not the fat guy should pull the sink from the wall before the commercial. Now you’re working on something that people could lose their lives over. It’s sobering. It’s real.”
“Man, this is it! Finally! Showtime!” It a dark night in the Middle East, and Privates O’Neil and Ramirez are craning their guns from a bunker into the pouring rain. Ramirez, dour-faced, isn’t taking to O’Neil’s gung-ho enthusiasm. “I joined the Army for three reasons,” he says, bitterly, “To get money for school, learn a trade, and get out of my crummy neighborhood. How’s that for irony?”
After a few more displays of fear and loathing, Ramirez is confronted by his superior, Sergeant White. “You know what this is about?” White asks.
“Yeah,” Ramirez says, “you know it’s fighting for democracy - ”
“That’s not what I’m talking about!” White snaps, “You can only get away with pretending for so long. You’re supposed to be a warrior. So you tell me, Ramirez, are you ready to wear this uniform?”
Fade out. This is a scene from Nowhere to Hide, a twenty minute film created at the ICT. It was distributed to ROTC cadet command earlier this year. And it was a scandal.
Shortly after 9/11, the ICT was asked to produce a film which would provide a vision for where the Army of the future. With the help of scientists, researchers, screenwriters, and animators, the ICT spent two years creating scenes straight out of Star Trek – flying robots, X-ray vision, and lots of bombs. But they also included something more explosive: a point of view. In the film, Ramirez is reluctant. Equipment gets destroyed. War, essentially, is hell.
“When the Army presents combat, it’s like ‘we’ll always kick ass and we’ll always win,” says David Hendrie, ICT’s producer and director of the film, “our vision isn’t like that. We show all the incredible technologies, but perhaps more importantly we show that, in the future, combat is still combat; it sucks, it’s dirty, and people get hurt.”
Hendrie speaks with authority. Before joining the ICT as a project manager, he served three years in the Army, became an officer, yet, as his co-producer Korris puts its, “escaped with his creativity and subversion in tact.” But Hendrie says Nowhere to Hide’s dystopian subplot is hardly an act of insurrection. “It’s not subversive, it’s honest,” Hendrie says, “We’re anti-war in the sense that every soldier is anti-war. We’re helping people see a vision, not a bullshit fantasy.”
But the audience didn’t want Full Metal Jacket, they wanted Top Gun. Though they had approved the storyboard in advance, Hendrie says, when certain factions associated with the Army saw the film they hit the roof. “They were upset about the soldiers being scared, by all the equipment being destroyed,” Hendrie says, “They thought it undermined the vision that technology was going to solve all the world’s problems.”
The ICT was asked to re-shoot the film. “It was a scandal,” Hendrie says, “They wanted to show soldiers kicking ass. They wanted a different movie.” But the ICT held firm. “We refused to produce propaganda that’s patently dishonest,” Hendrie says. So another command came down instead, Hendrie says, “They ordered us to destroy all the footage.”
When things cooled down, however, the warring factions behind the scenes had a change of heart. At the close of the film, Private Ramirez comes around after all. When the vehicle he’s driving flips, leaving Sergeant White badly wounded, Ramirez decides he’s a warrior deep down. “Bring it on!” he says, before slaughtering the bad guys with an onslaught straight out of Missile Command.
Enough people in the military liked to film to give it a green light. Steven Spielberg stopped by for viewing. And, Hendrie says, the people who initially balked asked for their names on the credits.
After eight months in Afghanistan, Hollywood is even weirder than usual. That’s what Captain Butler seems to think as he, Major Cummings, and the ICT crew hit up an trendy power lunch restaurant after a long session planning their war games.
A company commander overseas, Butler says this is his first visit to L.A. “I’m a blank slate,” he admits. He surveys the table’s foreign matter: Odd forks. Bread stuffed with olives. Swirls of urine-colored liquid on a toy-sized plate. “It’s olive oil and whatever,” explains Cummings.
“Nothing on it?” The waiter asks, incredulously.
“No,” Butler replies, “Just the meat.”
A company commander overseas, Butler says this is his first visit to L.A. “I’m a blank slate,” he admits.
Butler will have plenty of time to digest his new surroundings. The ICT is considered a success, and it’s not going away. The Army renewed its contract with the ICT for another five years. In June, the Institute’s first commercial product, an Xbox version of its training simulation Full Spectrum Warrior hit shelves; the game has already received several awards from the gaming industry. After reviewing it, a West Point General said he wanted every cadet to have a copy of the game.
But the ICT’s most surprising accomplishment might be the strange love it inspired among its unlikely troops. This hit home for Lindheim during a visit to Fort Knox. “The military people came to me and said, ‘we thought these Hollywood guys would be a bunch of flakes but they’re smart, they really understand,’” he recalls, “then the entertainment people said, ‘we thought military guys would be bunch of yoyos.’ That’s when I turned to the commanding general and said, ‘this will work.’”
But this doesn’t mean they’ve changed their politics. “I’m as anti-war now as I was before,” says Sears, “I don’t understand Iraq. But when you work with these soldiers, you realize they didn’t decide to go to Iraq. We’ve learned from the sixties that there’s a difference between the soldiers and the political decisions that put them there. And I have nothing but total respect for the soldiers.” Sears found the feeling was mutual when he was given a prestigious infantry award for his service on the game.
“You gotta picture me up there getting my medal in my aloha shirt and Tevas, in bad need of a haircut,” Sears says, “To be accepted by that tribe, that team, that culture was awesome. That was inspiring.”
Major Cummings agrees. “These guys with those earrings and Hawaiian shirts, they’re worth it,” he says, “They’re good Americans.”