Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies

SimCentric scales up tactical military simulation training with Unreal Engine

By Sėbastien Lozė |
November 17, 2020
As a veteran of the Australian Army, Dr. Adam Easton knows that military training in a live environment can be dangerous. With the goal of giving troops the best possible training under the safest of circumstances, Easton founded SimCentric Technologies in 2008 to provide simulation-based military training that would not only prepare participants for battle more cost-effectively, but also save lives. 

With offices in the UK, Sri Lanka, and Australia, SimCentric now serves military organizations all over the globe. A few years ago they switched to Unreal Engine as the foundation for all their simulation offerings, a change they claim gave them the ability to generate a wider variety of products far more quickly.

“For the first time as a company, we can provide complete solutions to customers without reliance on other technology,” says Easton, the company’s CEO. “Unreal Engine has been absolutely pivotal to us, to be able to push forwards.”
Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies

Building training around Unreal Engine

When first founded, SimCentric used the simulation platforms long accepted by the military to generate tactical training solutions, but eventually found these systems to be too limiting. “With these legacy systems, we were finding it very hard to hit certain technical performance benchmarks and really push the envelope,” says Easton. “We needed to look somewhere different.”

Meanwhile, Tom Constable, now VP of Innovation at SimCentric, had founded a startup military simulation provider called P-TAC Interactive. Constable had, from the start, used Unreal Engine as the foundation for all his products.

Constable, a veteran as well as an avid gamer, had made an important observation about the visual quality of simulations during his own training. "It didn't make a lot of sense that the DoD were using a certain platform that looked a certain way, and then in the evenings, when I was playing first-person shooters, I saw the fidelity and realism that had been achieved in the gaming space," he says. "That's when I started to explore Unreal Engine."

SimCentric has since acquired P-TAC Interactive. With Constable on board, SimCentric has expanded both their off-the-shelf offerings and their custom solutions with Unreal Engine-powered applications, many of them accredited. Their SAF-FIRES product, for example, is a standards-based, scalable training simulation that can be deployed in accreditable JTAC training simulators.
Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies
“Unreal Engine has a very attractive set of technologies and more importantly, Epic Games was genuinely interested in servicing the simulation industry,” says Easton, adding that this support has enabled SimCentric to quickly grow their training offerings in a short period of time.

SimCentric’s first training programs specialized in joint fires and close air support. But with Unreal Engine as a flexible base, they’ve since expanded to areas of range safety, smart wearables, pattern-of-life analysis, artificial intelligence, and most recently, virtual reality and immersive training. 

“One of the challenges of having those different streams is that we become specialists in a number of specific verticals in the market,” says Easton. “The appeal of Unreal Engine has been the ability to provide that common baseline that services all of those different elements.” 

Pushing past the legacy

One of the drawbacks of a legacy simulation platform, Easton explains, is that they weren’t built to export to other delivery methods like virtual reality, mobile, or desktop, and adding these features would require a complete redesign. On the other hand, game engines like Unreal Engine are constantly updated to take advantage of the latest technologies. This means that instead of limiting their simulations to a single platform, SimCentric can offer the output in whatever format the client wants.

Easton and Constable appreciate that Unreal Engine takes care of these aspects of development out of the box. “A real strength of Unreal Engine is that we don’t have to worry about doing it ourselves,” Easton says. “We want to focus on what we do best, which is understanding the specific pillars of training use cases, and making sure we provide the best user experience within that pillar. We don’t want to worry about all of the technological challenges underneath.”

Easton also appreciates Unreal Marketplace, where SimCentric can pick up ready-made environments, weapons, and characters to quickly put together a proof of concept. “We do modify and adapt the content from Marketplace, but it provides enough of a head start that it really cuts down the development time and increases our velocity,” he says. “Without Marketplace, we would not have been able to achieve as much as we have over the last few years.”

Innovating with research

Central to many of SimCentric’s simulations is terrain that accurately represents a real-life location. “We’ve seen how beautifully Unreal Engine can render terrain,” Easton says. “The goal is to be able to input geo-specific data and have Unreal automatically generate that terrain including roads, buildings, trees, and foliage, and then generate an optimized scene that will render fast and still look great.”
Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies
To that end, SimCentric has developed a tool within Unreal Engine that processes shape files, height maps, and satellite imagery to produce an optimized scene with modular buildings and procedural foliage. Easton is excited about the possibilities that such a tool opens up for SimCentric. 

“We’d like to get to the point where we can take any part of the world and very quickly, in an automated way, almost push a button and create beautiful terrain for large areas,” he says, “and we are getting very close to that now.”

Another area of research for SimCentric is the scalability of tactical training. SimCentric is currently working with the UK’s Royal Air Force to provide virtual reality-based training. “They’re conducting section-level drills, practicing skills from target indications all the way through to section attacks and ambushes,” says Easton. 

The training has two parts, one outside virtual reality and one within it. The soldiers plan a scenario outside virtual reality, then step into the virtual world and conduct the scenario multiple times in the same location. 

“This enables them to revise the procedures and tactics, and command and control, and then move into actual live training or blank-fire training with the confidence that their team understands what they need to do,” says Easton.
Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies
The next phase will involve evaluations of the process, followed by scalability. “The final phase is moving onto platoon-level virtual reality training, where we will have 25 to 30 members of the same platoon in the virtual environment,” Easton says. “We’ll see how Unreal Engine performs, and see what kind of training value those troops and commanders get from training specifically within the virtual environment.”

Using a game engine for military training

But can a game engine provide the level of accuracy that the military, a traditionally risk-averse sector, demands? When asked this question, Easton points to his staff’s years of military experience, and the products they’ve already developed. This, he says, quashes any doubts a client might have had.
Image courtesy of SimCentric Technologies
Constable’s take on the “accuracy” question points to the practical aspects of using Unreal Engine, using the example of a ballistic trajectory. “With such a trajectory, the accuracy of the model is dependent on two things: the mathematics behind that model, and the time step you break it down to, which is related to the frame rate,” he says. “One of the huge advantages that we have with the Unreal Engine is that we are able to achieve frame rates that are significantly higher than we have ever seen from other software in the simulation industry. This means that the accuracy of the calculations of that ballistic trajectory is actually higher than it would otherwise have been if you were calculating it with other software.”

Constable has also noticed that the training solutions made with Unreal Engine gain instant acceptance from younger recruits. “From private-level soldiers, the buy-in is pretty much instantaneous because they use the engine in their spare time,” he says. “They understand it. They understand the graphics. They understand how to move within the environment.”

As for the future, Easton is excited to see how much farther Unreal Engine will take them, particularly the new features coming in Unreal Engine 5, which promise to transform the way content is created. “That alone will cause a significant reduction in the cost for the military,” he says. “We are really only just beginning to see the trend of what game engines can do.”

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