NEW YORK — I’m on a covert Navy mission driving a special operation craft on a secluded river. I'm charged with helping to extract a SEAL team pinned down by enemy fire. The boat is outfitted with extreme firepower, but it is left to my fellow crewmen to fire the guns, launch the grenades and provide cover for other sailors while I navigate the waterway. As daylight turns to night we switch to night goggles. We are thrust into action.
Now the reality. I didn’t enlist in the Navy. Instead, I donned Oculus Rift headgear and wore a percussive sub-pack inside a tractor trailer temporarily stationed over the Memorial Day weekend on Long Island’s Jones Beach, all to experience how the Navy is using virtual reality to attract potential recruits.
For more than a decade, the Navy, along with other branches of the military, has employed VR for training purposes. It was only in October, however, that the Navy began using VR for recruitment. The tractor trailer, called the Nimitz, is driven around the country to schools, Fleet Weeks, and special events, including the air show that took place this past weekend at Jones Beach.
The Navy says the VR efforts are indeed generating "leads" among potential recruits. At the Winter X Games in Aspen, CO., where the Nimitz was stationed, the Navy saw a 48% increase in leads; at the Army/Navy football game in Baltimore, the Navy saw a 126% increase in leads. In the first two months after the Navy's VR efforts began, leads of potential recruits have more than doubled compared to the previous two years combined.
“People come up and just want to know—`what’s it really like to be in the Navy,” said Travis Simmons, the Naval Public Affairs Officer who led me through my experience.
While VR recruiting is a first for the Navy, other arms of the military have ventured into the space. The U.S. Air Force, for example, has sent out free VR viewers that lets people get immersed inside 360-degree Special Ops experiences. Over in the U.K. the British Army has also used an Oculus Rift during recruiting efforts.
As part of my Jones Beach experience, I first had to register at a kiosk set up in a tent. I entered my first name, first initial of my last name, Zip code, age group and so on. I then was asked to check off boxes to indicate my interest in joining the Navy, either for full-time active duty or as a part-time reserve. If you click yes (and are of the right age), you’ll potentially be contacted by a recruiter. If you click no as I did, you can still go through the VR exercise, which start to finish lasts about 15 minutes.
In fact, the Navy says that 20% of all VR participants who originally check the box expressing they are not interested in the Navy, change their minds to “interested” after going through the experience.
The trailer has eight VR pods, allowing the Navy to accommodate about 60 people per hour. Since its launch more than 25,000 people have taken the mission.
Upon registering, I was issued an RFID dog tag that I scanned in front of another screen so that my mission briefing could begin. The Navy used real training footage captured from Fort Knox, Ky. to create the simulations shown during the briefing and once you've started your VR mission. You hear recorded voices from members of the Navy's Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen Training” or SWCC (pronounced “swik”) for short.
With the Rift and sub-pack in place, and my hands on the steering wheel and throttle, I was all gung-ho.
The 37-foot long, 9-foot wide boat I drove during my SWCC mission can cruise at a speed of 40 knots. At times though I was instructed to pull back on the throttle and slow down so as not to alert the enemy of our approach.
I felt the 360-degree Oculus experience was very much like being part of an engaging high quality video game, with the vibrations of the sub-pac lending an extra dose of realism. A helicopter was above me, another boat to the side and rear. I could look all around the see my brethren, the guys manning the guns. Oddly though, the game seemed less violent or graphic than some other video games I’ve played.
Perhaps this is intentional, so recruiters can downplay the very real dangers and risks that members of the armed forces face?
“This is all based off modern game systems—with a Navy flair,” Simmons says.
According to Simmons, the Navy plans to come up with other VR missions, maybe ones that take you to the high seas or beneath the surface inside a submarine.
The Navy would like to attract recruits schooled in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, which Simmons says ties into many of the 60 career fields that the Navy offers.
Eventually, Simmons believes you’ll be able to download your own Navy VR experiences and not have to rely on being near an event where Navy happens to bring its tractor trailer.
In the end, you’re supposed to be scored on how well you performed during your mission—alas, I never got my score. And while I had a enjoyable time participating, I wouldn’t have minded just a tad more suspense.