Keesler AFB training with Avatar

By Danielle Thomas – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Avatar isn't just a Hollywood blockbuster. It's also a technology the Air Force hopes will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Right now Keesler Air Force Base officials say they're still testing the waters to see if avatar is an effective way to train students.

Every year, Keesler welcomes airmen from all over the world who come to further their education. Keesler officials say temporary duty (TDY) students are a huge expense, so the Air Force is hoping avatar will help to cut expenses without compromising the level of training.

After watching a video, Quality Control Instructor Sam Raleigh asked his students to identify all the things the technician in the video did wrong. Then students correct the problems in virtual reality.

"It allows us to bring realism in training for the students by bringing in different characters and different functions into a virtual world," said Raleigh. "We are able to recreate different scenarios for the students to help during the learning process."

Avatar means "you" in cyberspace and is a computer character created to represent its users and in this case, airmen. With the click of a mouse, airmen can make the avatar perform various tasks.

"We're putting together a trial class to see how it would work," Lt. Col. Janet Haug said. "We had students come in, but instead of going to a regular classroom, they sat behind the computers and met virtually."

The virtual training prepares the airmen for real life military scenarios.

Tech Sgt. Rand Bundenthal is a computer programmer.

"The original avatar prototype type thing is from video games and since a lot of the students now days pretty much grew up with computers, they're used to it," Bundenthal said. "So all we did is we took the idea and built a classroom around it."

If avatar does what it's supposed to do, instructors say it will save the Air Force money by providing training without temporary duty students ever having to step foot on base. Students would just log in from their home base.

"First and foremost, we want to make sure that it has teaching viability," said Lt. Col. Janet Haug. "That what we're doing is as good or, if we can, better than actual classroom learning. Definitely we need to get the level of the education up to the point where the students are understanding and able to apply the material. The second thing is cost effectiveness. Is what we're doing in the future going to save money?"

Keesler officials say if TDY students are able to complete the training from their home base, the savings to the military could be as high as $700,000 a year in housing, food, and transportation costs.

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