The US military has been at the center of a sexual assault crisis over the past several years, within an estimated 26,000 members of the armed services suffering sexual assaults in 2012 alone, according to internal data. While women servicemembers are more likely to be victim of assaults, the majority of incidents (53 percent) in 2012, actually were perpetrated by men against other men. The military says it's working to try and resolve the issue internally, and members of Congress are debating one another about what and can should be done, but now the US Navy itself appears to be working on an unusual method of its own: virtual avatar therapy, involving Microsoft's Kinect motion-controller.
A new $83,000 Navy contract first unearthed by right-wing news outlet CNS, and brought to our attention by Polygon, asks for a company to build a system for "Avatar based Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Training." The contract was first published online on June 26, but it wasn't awarded until July 19, when a New York-based company called Organic Motion, Inc. was handed the task of building the system. As for what exactly Organic Motion will be building for the Navy, the contract is calling for an “avatar based pilot program,” designed to train recruit division commanders — the people in the Navy who train new recruits — by acting out scenarios at the Navy bootcamp in Great Lakes, Illinois. As the contract states:
"The system will not use pre-programed branching scenarios to determine the responses for the avatar. It will instead animate a human agent using a [Kinect] interface. The system shall allow a subject matter expert to determine the appropriate response to both verbal and non-verbal cues so that the student receives improved feedback regarding their actions."
As it turns out, Organic Motion already makes a number of interactive digital "role playing" training simulators for the military. One of it's main products is the Live Interactive Virtual Environment (LIVE, for short). In essence, LIVE lets a human user control a digitally projected avatars across the walls of any room, using motion capture technology and two-way audio and video links. Here's a demo of the system from Organic Motion's website, and a white paper describing how it allows a single user to embody multiple characters:
From the relatively sparse contract details, it's unclear just if the Navy and Organic Motion are envisioning using something like this system for sexual assault response training, or something else entirely.
It's also worth another separate military agency, DARPA, previously poured money into a project that would see digital therapists treating sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That system has also been expanded into a prototype to treat people suffering with depression. Perhaps the Navy's digital sexual assault prevention program would fall along similar lines. We've reached out to the Navy and Organic Motion for more information and will update when we hear back.