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Executive summary

A new generation of virtual reality (VR) training simulations is poised to accelerate the Navy’s Ready Relevant Learning transformation. Affordable stand-alone VR can multiply reps and sets of immersive practices right before Sailors apply skills in real life. The Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) partnered with learning innovation leader Gronstedt Group to demonstrate the value of VR training. We converted a legacy touchscreen maintenance training program into a VR simulation that completely engulfs users. Sailors step into a virtual submarine machinery room of such convincing fidelity that they experience a real sense of being there. Turning valves and tightening bolts, they feel tactile vibration in their hands and hear the diesel engine roar to life when started. The program is self-paced with tutorials, feedback loops, and scaffolding. It can be played on a handheld gaming PC when space, comfort, or cyber security constraints make VR headsets impractical. User testers gave the VR program a perfect score and described it like, "You felt like you are actually working on the system and not just a screen!" This enthusiasm resonated with submarine leaders and I/ITSEC 2023 attendees and has sparked a flurry of ideas to enhance fleet readiness with VR learning at the point of need, whether it’s in port or underway.


Every year, the Navy loses $400 million due to congestion and delays in its training pipelines, according to Navy Personnel Command analysis. The “Ready Relevant Learning” strategy aims to reduce cost and increase proficiency by delivering modernized training at the actual point of need. In pursuit of this goal, the NAWCTSD teamed with the Gronstedt Group under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). This collaboration focuses on transforming the Multipurpose Reconfigurable Training System (MRTS) 3D® touchscreen training into a VR experience, accessible shipboard. 
The MRTS 3D® program features a highly detailed 3D environment on 55” touchscreens deployed in classrooms and simulates various scenarios for Sailors to practice real-time troubleshooting and maintenance procedures. While the current implementation has proven effective, the MRTS 3D® team recognizes the potential of VR to provide immersive training at the time and place of performance in the Fleet.   
Anyone who hasn’t experienced the startling sensation of being transported to a virtual environment and performing hands-on tasks under stress, like troubleshooting a flooded diesel engine in a submarine machinery room, probably won’t appreciate how far VR technology has come already. The feeling of presence is so convincing that students forget that they’re not actually there. Instead of using highly abstracted and unrealistic hand gestures on a flatscreen to turn a wrench with the MRTS program, the Sailor directly picks up the wrench with their virtual hands, fit it onto the bolt, and turn it, feeling as though they are actually inside a submarine. The hyper-realistic models, directional sound, and vibrating hand controllers “hack their senses” of sight, feeling, and hearing. Fully absorbed, they lose track of time and enter a state of "flow" as they learn and practice skills in a safe environment. Students and instructors from all over the world (or co-located) can interact with each other seamlessly, appearing as avatars collaborating on tasks and debriefing, learning with and from each other in the context of the performance environment.

VR solution

We developed a VR demonstration project that puts Sailors into a high-fidelity submarine machinery room. An instructor screen follows Sailors through every step as they navigate the virtual 688-Class diesel engine, providing videos and text instructions to guide them through the process of starting up the engine. Students grab the instruction screen and position it in mid-air at a location that is most suitable for the task they’re performing. Just like in real life, they use their hands to turn valves, push buttons, check gauges, tighten bolts, and pull levers. If they make a mistake, the sim scenario can easily be reset, as there are unlimited redo’s in VR. A compass arrow at the user’s feet shows them where to walk to their next task. They have the option to physically walk around the simulated submarine if their real-world space is large enough, or use controller thumbsticks to navigate the virtual space while seated or standing stationary.

Mobile VR or handheld gaming PCs

The low-cost, stand-alone VR headsets (like Meta Quest 3) are portable and easily deployable at the point-of-need, even aboard ships. They don’t need cords or a PC and can be experienced seated or standing, self-paced or multi-player. When comfort, space, or security aboard ships make VR usage challenging, Sailors can still engage with the application on handheld gaming PCs (like Asus ROG Ally). This new gen stand-alone Windows computers use game controllers, which have been the prime 3D flatscreen interface for three decades and are second nature for Sailors. The accessibility of mobile VR and handheld gaming PC training will multiply reps and sets of intense, deliberate practice, building muscle memory and boosting Sailor readiness.


The analytics gleaned from headsets and hand controllers can track everything the users do in the simulation; their mistakes, pain points, and proficiencies. While the system can track an overwhelming amount of metrics, the magic happens when meaningful data is fed back into the MRTS 3D®’s learning management system. These reports can then be used to suggest dynamically created scenarios to focus on skills where students need improvement. 

A new breed of VR developer

The project required a team of 3D artists and game designers to optimize a high-fidelity experience for mobile headsets, along with spatial learning experts to develop guided practice with tutorials and feedback. This new breed of learning design talent is typically found outside of the DoD legacy vendor pool. Gronstedt Group has developed such VR learning for enterprise clients since the first days of consumer VR.

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