When I started the research for this article, one of the many voices in my head (don't worry - they're not talking about you) called the subject devices "shooting simulators," as opposed to driving and other types of simulator devices. As I read the literature and spoke to industry executives, I was reminded that these are more properly called use-of-force simulators.
Firearms are one of the options available to the person in the simulator, but like in real life, he also has voice commands and less-lethal tools like impact weapons, pepper spray, and electronic restraints to use.
Roman gladiator schools used simulation or scenario training, and every warrior class since has refined the technique. Most common in police training are role-playing scenarios, where volunteers - usually other cops - portray bad guys or victims while the trainee tries to resolve the instant dilemma. Role-playing is time- and personnel-intensive. You need a certain number of role-players multiplied by however many scenarios you will stage at once, plus props, plus a secure area to set up.
The "stage" is largely imagined because you don't have warehouses and highways and residential kitchens at your disposal in the training area, and there's usually a lot of standing around. Role-players also often go off script, so each trainee doesn't get the same training exposure and experience.
Video-based simulators use real-life environments, the actors never ad lib, and each scenario instantly resets as many times as desired. The precise location of each "hit" is recorded exactly, and the players continue to move, fall down, or otherwise react appropriately. The instructor has the ability to present the same scenario over and over, use different scenarios, or alter the circumstances of a single one to produce a different outcome and optimal response.
Now more than ever, "keeping it real" is a critical factor in training new recruits. This generation grew up with movies made entirely of lifelike computer-generated graphics (CGI), sometimes rendered in 3-D (Toy Story was 15 years ago). They have always had complex, multi-layered video games, often played on large format TVs or computer displays. Anything less than state of the art, and they're asking, "This the best you got?"
Picture and Sound
Manufacturers of use-of-force simulators create their scenarios with medium- or high-definition cameras, shooting and playing at 720p or 1080p. They also use 5.1 surround sound, so footsteps behind the trainee or to the side are perceived as actually coming from that direction.
Most simulators are available with multiple screens, making it possible to create a full 360-degree environment. This requires at least six screens and projectors, and may also require additional graphics cards to drive the extra projectors. Adding that extra hardware is expensive, and that's the reason those setups are uncommon.
When a system uses more than one screen, the extras are more often positioned to the immediate left and right of the main display for approximately 120 degrees of view, to the left and right flanks for threats from three directions, or front and back. This latter configuration works well for Federal Air Marshal training, where the threat environment runs along the aisle of a passenger airplane.
Simulators generally run from a Windows-based computer platform, so they will run most any Windows software. Instructors can use the system for introductory or follow-up classroom sessions with PowerPoint, sound recordings, or video clips. Systems from IES Interactive Training come with a "Knowledge Base" of articles, clips, and other media keyed to situations in the included scenarios, and users can add more media as they choose. In a situation where the instructor wants to show the real-world relevance of a scenario, the push of a button brings up a news story or magazine article.
Games, not office applications, separate the man computers from the boy computers. A new top-end computer game might not run at all on a computer from three years ago. Use-of-force simulators are enough like computer games that they require similarly heavy-duty hardware.
The current crop of use-of-force simulators from Advanced Interactive Systems (AIS) use dual-core processors with dedicated graphics cards and 2 GB of memory, running under 32-bit Windows XP. Those from IES run 64-bit Windows 7. A 64-bit system doubles the size of the data pipe used in a 32-bit system. If the system is properly optimized and the processor is up to it, almost everything runs faster.
Quality of the displayed image is dependent on the graphics hardware. Inexpensive computers and most laptops use integrated graphics that share the system's internal memory with other functions. Use-of-force sims generally have dedicated graphics. These are separate "cards" installed in the computer that use their own onboard memory and processors. Dedicated graphics cards drive from one to six displays simultaneously, although most are set up for two displays. When you're shopping systems, pay special attention to the graphics capabilities, especially if you're planning on running more than one display.
Now that keyboards and pointing devices (mice, trackballs, joysticks) are all available in cordless models, the instructor is no longer tethered to the computer running the system. Being able to move around the room allows the instructor to keep his sight line on the trainee while still maintaining control of the sim.
IES offers a handheld PDA capable of running the entire system. The same company offers wearable biometric sensors that record the trainee's heart rate and respiration, then overlay that plot on the playback of the scenario. This kind of feedback is extremely valuable for teaching trainees to overcome stress.