11.1.2008

Zero Hour: Virtual Heroes Uses Unreal Engine 3 for Real EMS Training

By John Gaudiosi

RALEIGH, NC -- Raleigh, NC—Virtual Heroes is a leading creator of serious games. So when it came time for the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute to take training of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) online, Greg Lord, associate director of the National EMS Preparedness Initiative, looked no further than Jerry Heneghan’s studio. After all, Heneghan, founder of Virtual Heroes, had worked on the Department of Defense’s America’s Army online game, so Lord felt this team was best-suited for their virtual training game, Zero Hour: America’s Medic. Heneghan decided the best tool for the job was Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3.

Zero Hour is intended to fully take advantage of all the bells and whistles of Unreal Engine 3 while creating a uniquely suspenseful, immersive, virtual world for training real medics,” explained Heneghan. “UE3 features that we took advantage of included volumetric environmental effects, on-the-fly real-time shaders, pre-computed shadow masks, directional light maps, particle physics, and environmental effects.”

The game, downloadable from <http://www.nemspi.org>, puts players through training exercises that include four of the 15 national planning scenarios from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. After a quick tutorial level that instructs the player how to navigate the virtual world (Lord expects a large segment of older specialists will not have any videogame experience), the game opens up to unique disaster scenarios that escalate as the player investigates and journeys from one situation to the next.

Zero Hour

In essence, the game offers 3D puzzles with lifelike environments, like an exploding stadium and victims that respond to questions. Heneghan said with UE3 his team was able to show minute details like blood in a patient’s eyes, which is a key symptom that will unlock one major scenario in the game.

“One of the challenges we face is that people rarely get to practice response to large-scale events because, thankfully, we don’t have many of them,” said Lord. “Even ambulance rescuers and EMTs who work in a large city might see a large-scale event with 50 to 100 patients occur maybe once or twice in a career. The expectation to be prepared for these types of events is more difficult without practicing it.”

Zero Hour allows personnel to experience unique issues around managing an emergency incident, like an earthquake or terrorist attack, while triaging a large number of patients and maintaining an operational environment. The ability to diagnose a large number of patients in unfriendly surroundings, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, will challenge even seasoned EMS personnel.

Zero Hour

“Look at Katrina. What made things difficult were the logistics and command and control, the communication and the process by which you accessed and moved assets to affected areas… all those inherent operational issues in a large-scale event that are difficult and that we don’t get to practice on a daily basis, much less a monthly basis. Most places may do this once a year, and ultimately, when a disaster happens, it will probably be the biggest event of your career as an EMT.” said Lord.

Lord said that Virtual Heroes’ use of Unreal Engine 3 technology has created a virtual environment that’s vividly detailed and also great from a cost perspective. Although the game was designed for EMS personnel to use as part of their real-world certification for emergency response, anyone can play Zero Hour from anywhere, on any PC. Lord doesn’t know what impact this game will have on the public and non-EMS players who download and play it, but he noted that with America’s Army, there have been instances where medical expertise learned in a game led to a real-world, life-saving incident (in Raleigh, NC).

“Someone who’d played America’s Army was able to save someone’s life in an auto accident from the medic role he had played in that game,” said Lord. “I think that’s one of the spectacular things you’ll see out of Zero Hour. People will better understand what EMS is on a day-to-day basis and in a disaster. And people will learn the right things that can be done to save people’s lives. For the public good and the community we serve, there will be great benefits to this game.”

Zero Hour

Zero Hour measures how players respond to incidents through a defined process. They’ll perform within the incident the primary roles of medical command, triage, and treatment. Based on their virtual performance, players will receive an after-action review of what they did right and wrong. At end of the game, they’ll take a post-test. Lord and his team will track the improvements of personnel after playing the game.

“Our hope is that the government will view this as a good thing, and we validate our hypothesis by this educational process, and they’ll fund more of this,” said Lord. “We believe very strongly that we can move this toward the real-time, live Internet-based gaming you see with some of the higher-end stuff. This will allow us to interject problems into the process to dynamically configure a scenario. With this iteration, we weren’t able to accomplish those things.”

The reason Heneghan and Lord went with Unreal Engine 3 was to take advantage of the online capabilities of the engine. The plan is for Zero Hour to be the first step in an ongoing serious game initiative. “Each environment we created was designed so that multiplayer gameplay/training could happen in later versions of the game,” explained Heneghan. “The game was built using Virtual Heroes Advanced Learning Technology Platform elements to facilitate after-action-reviews, links to learning management systems, and framework for modular, scalable expansion of the experience over time.”

Zero Hour

Lord has even loftier dreams for Zero Hour’s future growth. He’d like to see Zero Hour expand to incorporate training for Red Cross, fire, police, and all emergency management.

“Think of what you could do if you could create what amounts to a Second Life for disaster response,” asked Lord. “Providers across all the disciplines of a large-scale event could operate in real time and on an ongoing basis. We could design a program for the city of New York, and they could run their own virtual drills. The same could be done for San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

Although ultimately the cost of developing out what Virtual Heroes has started with Zero Hour will be high, Lord said the payback on this type of virtual training game would be priceless. Right now, the future of Homeland Security’s serious games initiative rests on Zero Hour – a simulation that wouldn’t be possible without Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 technology.

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