Robots and other mechanical beings are cropping up in the most unexpected places. Case in point: Pay a visit to the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and you'll find yourself greeted in the lobby by a human mechanical surrogate. Operated by a human in a remote location, the surrogate is not intended to put Walmart greeters out of a job, but is part of a program by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to create robots, avatars, and animatronic surrogates for military training.

No matter what the size of the army or how advanced the technology, it's training that wins wars. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen who go into battle after practicing their skills to the point where they become reflexes, know their equipment like their own arms, can act like a team by instinct, and have had discipline drilled into their bones have on more than one occasion turned an impossible situation into victory. That may seem a long way from greeting people in a campus lobby, but its isn't as far as you may think.

The problem is that training is expensive, time consuming, and requires the knowledge, experience, and talents of people who are always in short supply. ONR's surrogate greeter is one small demonstration of how the technology that allows the robotic humanoid to interact with the public can also tackle the complex problems of military training.

Part of the ONR's three-year Human Surrogate Interaction program, in cooperation with the US Marine Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan, the goal is to study how virtual avatars, animatronics, and other surrogates can allow trainers to be in more than one place at one time as a sort of training force multiplier.

"Marine Corps training concepts continue to merge virtual and live components to create the most realistic, effective and affordable training for Marines," says Dr Peter Squire, ONR program officer. "The way people react to and interact with the different surrogates in this study is crucial to understanding how we can improve our military training systems."

One aspect of the program is the development of the Avatar Mediated Interactive Training and Individualized Experience System (AMITIES). The purpose of this is to use voice modulation, artificial intelligence, network protocols, and a human controller with a specialized handheld user interface and head-tracking software to control multiple surrogates. This would allow a trainer to be anywhere needed, switching between multiple characters and sites to supplement on-site trainers and actors with lower costs and logistics, whether it's stepping into the character of an Afghan shepherd demanding compensation for dead goats or as the victim of a sexual assault.

According to ONR, one recently demonstrated example is a humanoid robot that can represent different races, sexes, and personalities by changing facial appearance and behavior.

ONR says that program experts will discuss the new training technologies on February 4 and 5 at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology EXPO in Washington, DC.

Source: ONR