Simulation companies perfect delicate balancing act as they serve military and commercial customers

Companies working in military simulation are facing a problem familiar to other defense contractors.

Jan 1st, 2001
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By J.R. Wilson

ORLANDO, Fla. — Companies working in military simulation are facing a problem familiar to other defense contractors. On the one hand, military requirements continue to drive technology development. Yet on the other hand, tight military budgets can neither fund much research and development, nor hold out any hope for defense contractors of high enough sales to justify independent research investment.

At the same time, commercial and consumer markets for simulation technologies are growing rapidly, but often without the stringent demands that military users place on that technology.

The result is a technology being driven by a customer who can barely afford it, and high demand by customers who do not want to fund its high-end evolution.

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"Enterprise gets the technology only when it is stable; they won't experiment," says Sandeep Divekar, president of MultiGen-Paradigm in San Jose, Calif., during the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Fla. "That's one reason we stay with the military; that's where all the development is."

Simulation companies have been forced into a delicate and complex balancing act. Sometimes simulation company executives envy the relatively simple choices of companies in other industries, which forego military contracts because they are too much trouble for too little return and concentrate instead on more lucrative commercial and consumer markets.

"It's a tricky decision each time you look at a particular opportunity with the military," notes Eric Foxlin, chief technology officer at InterSense Inc. in Burlington, Mass. Before competing for military contracts simulation company officials must ask themselves a question, Foxlin says. "If you decide not to bid it and a competitor does, will the competitor gain some technological edge that may impact your commercial business?"

When it comes to product sales, the question is straightforward, Foxlin says. "The revenues from the military often won't support development of the high-precision equipment they require. There are other ways, such as SBIR [Small-Business Innovative Research], although those in themselves wouldn't create a viable business model. But if you combine these, in a synergistic way, you can make the two sides of your business work together practically."

Foxlin cites an SBIR contract that InterSense won from the military. It involved a visualization technology development that InterSense engineers already had begun working on for the commercial marketplace. The SBIR provided needed early-development funding and, by the time they had finished phase one, they were able to put out a commercial product that had more sales than the military ultimately would provide.

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"Knowing that, we were able to do a better job for both," he says. "The SBIR pushes you a little harder than the commercial customers, which helps in the long run because you make your product more robust and bullet-proof. But that's a balancing act, because you don't want to spend a lot of development money on things your commercial customers don't want."

How this mix is beginning to play out can be seen in the restructuring of the simulation industry, from acquisitions and reorganization within Lockheed Martin to the acquisition a year ago of 3D visualization simulation technology provider MultiGen-Paradigm by Computer Associates of Islandia, N.Y., a business software company moving rapidly into the online realm of e-business.

For Computer Associates, the goal was "to have access to technology it needed to put intuitive interfaces into its products," says Divekar, who moved to MultiGen-Paradigm from a post as divisional senior vice president at Computer Associates. While the defense and entertainment communities pushed their own development, Computer Associates leaders see a much wider base of possible applications of visualization technology to reduce costs.

"Soon we expect to see a lot more industrial applications, such as assembly line training," Divekar says. "One airline is looking at training to shorten the time it takes to change in-flight menus, a process that now takes two months. We're best at the whole military vizsim game. Ultimately, however, the technology will spread to those other markets."

Focusing on visual simulation as their core business, MultiGen-Paradigm is trying to ensure its software is available cross-platform, not only in terms of working with image generators (IGs) from major suppliers such as Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Evans & Sutherland (E&S), but also porting it to Linux and Windows NT. The former, Divekar notes, reflects the graphics community's Unix-based history as well as the tendency of those adopting Intel platforms to lean toward Linux.

Another 3D-visualization provider looking to leverage military and commercial markets together is Fakespace Systems Inc. in Kitchener, Ontario. Fakespace provides its pseudo-holographic workbenches and Passive WorkWall, which currently are installed at 30 military facilities, plus NASA, Department of Energy, and government research agencies.

"Our primary focus is how people interact with the system. It's not a tool unless you can actually use it with the proper interaction," says Jim Angelillo, the Fakespace vice president for strategic relations. "We're trying to create an interactive environment. Part of that comes from the immersion element. That also can include haptics, although not all users want that. What we're striving for is to put a system in the customer's environment that is transparent. They shouldn't be thinking about the technology they're using."

The Passive WorkWall, a conference room-size, rear projection visualization system, uses circular rather than linear polarization, which means the user can turn his head and not lose the 3D view. Two bright, solid-state projectors display separate left eye and right eye images (1,280 by 1,024 pixels) on the 6-by-7.5-foot screen. Proprietary filters at the projectors and lightweight glasses worn by users block alternate eye images to create a flicker-free stereoscopic view.

"Our real benefit is the reduction in prototype time. They can actually walk through something before building it," Angelillo says. "This means a significant reduction in cycle time to bring something to market — or to the field, including battle plans — as well as money savings and even safety applications, such as emergency training in a nuclear facility."

A company that has ridden the highs and lows of military budgets and changing technologies, Silicon Graphics has introduced new products into each of its product categories in the past six months. This follows a two-year period of divestitures as it sought to tighten operations and focus on a core of high-performance computing and visualization, including the Reality Center high-resolution wall display.

"We're putting together solutions based around immersion applications," says David Kanahele, SGI modeling and simulation solutions manager, adding that, for their products, "imaging is being pushed by both the military and commercial markets."

SGI officials have focused considerable effort on immersive visualization, a technology seen extensively at I/ITSEC 2000. A key product in this arena is the Onyx2-driven Reality Center 3300W with Barcographics 808 projectors. Similar in application to the Fakespace WorkWall, the Reality Center can be used by military or commercial viewers for three-dimensional imagery and interaction.

Offering an attention-grabbing new entry on the 3D immersive landscape is Elumens of Cary, N.C., whose leaders launched their workspace-scale VisionStation hemispherical display system at I/ITSEC. Offered with 3-, 4- and 5-foot diameter bowl-shaped screens (or, for large groups, in a 5- to 16-foot VisionDome, precursor to the individual stations), the portable display surrounds the user in an intimate 180-degree 3D environment. Elumens' TruTheta imaging technology also offers infinite focus, so the entire image is in full focus at all times.

Weighing only 150 pounds and packaged in two sections, one person can assemble the VisionStation in less than half an hour, according to Elumens engineers.

The first VisionStations were shipped in August 2000, with some three dozen going to customers ranging from the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich., to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to the Chinese University of Hong Kong by year's end.

At Virtual Prototypes in Montreal, marketing director Yvan Lagace sees a world in which embedded electronics, a technology developed in large part for the military, will become more and more common in commercial applications. The resulting economies of scale from that far larger market are expected to benefit cost-conscious military programs as well as spur future development.

"We are increasing the base where we use our tools. The military market alone is very poor; it is very project-oriented and that makes the business very difficult. That's what makes commercial very important to us," he says. "In the last six months, we have made some decisions for our future, including acquiring two new companies — Xtend Inc. and Esterel Technologies. We now have a wider suite of tools for the software developers, allowing them to develop all the software that goes into embedded electronics.

"We're leveraging our capabilities from military into automotive and telecom and other commercial markets. The money is there and it won't go away. You can't say that in military business."

Lagace also sees benefit to companies such as Virtual Prototypes from recent military moves from outright purchase of training systems to pay-per-hour schemes in which the contractor retains ownership and operates and maintains systems for military on-demand use. Such companies, he says, "realize very quickly they need off-the-shelf tools to create network management, for example."

Although relatively small (about $20 million in annual sales, including recent acquisitions), Virtual Prototypes probably is not a good candidate for acquisition, Lagace says: "We're a small company involved in both military and commercial operations, which makes us a funny hybrid to the big companies."

One of the oldest names still found at I/ITSEC is Evans & Sutherland (E&S) of Salt Lake City. The company has ridden the unpredictable roller coaster of demand, technology, and program glitches, such as losing its contract to provide Lockheed Martin with an Ensemble IG for the United Kingdom's Combined Arms Tactical Trainer. The company's stock also has taken a pounding this year — an experience it also shares with others in the industry.

In the 1980s, E&S was one of the key suppliers for large military simulation systems based on its ESIG family of image generators. In the 1990s, the company expected its new Symphony product line (Ensemble, Harmony, Melody) to push ESIG into obsolescence. So far, that has not been the case, with E&S expecting to ship 50 percent more ESIGs in 2001 than they did in 2000.

Even so, David Janke, E&S vice president for strategic marketing, says he sees the market steadily moving toward the smaller Symphony footprint and away from the large, centralized, multi-million dollar simulators for which systems such as the ESIG 5500 is targeted.

"The trend is toward smaller systems, closer to the warfighter," he says. "Technology has allowed you to do in smaller, less expensive modes what once took much larger, more expensive systems. But it's not easy to do target projection on those small systems, although the technology continues to advance and you may not need target projection in the future."

Janke also acknowledges one other significant change in the market: "A few years ago, the IG was the discriminator in competitions. Now, it is increasingly the display."

All of this has led E&S to focus on new products — such as a fourth installment in the Symphony line, as yet unnamed, to be released in 2001 and an ultra-high resolution laser projector (32 million pixels from a single projector) that is still under development.

"It's a quantum leap in performance over anything available today," Janke says of the laser projector. "E&S has exclusive rights to use grating light valve (GLV) technology for military and commercial simulation. We expect to have a product by 2002-03."

GLV uses micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and optical physics to vary how light is reflected from each of multiple ribbon-like structures, representing individual pixels, that can move a tiny distance, changing the wavelength of reflected light. Grayscale tones are achieved partly by varying the speed at which given pixels are switched on and off.

E&S also is working to accommodate both the differences in market size and applications requirements between its military and commercial customers.

"The military will always require greater functionality and performance," Janke says. "It is probably very unlikely for COTS electronics to have the kind of functionality the military needs because that is such a tiny market compared to games and such. To bridge that gap will need special engineering, such as what E&S does. We will take major pieces of COTS, then augment it with our chips and designs to meet the military requirement. Maybe someday the chips will have so much horsepower you will be able to do what the military needs through software alone, but we're not there yet."

In a reorganization of its wide-ranging military, civil, and commercial training activities — including recent acquisitions — officials of Lockheed Martin announced at I/ITSEC they were bringing five existing companies into a common, synergistic collaborative initiative. Operating under the banner of Lockheed Martin Training in Orlando, Fla., will be Information Systems in Orlando, Fla., Missiles & Fire Control in Dallas, Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems in Akron, Ohio, Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems in Manassas, Va., and Systems Support & Training Services in Seabrook, Md.

"Lockheed Martin Training is a virtual company that provides live, virtual and constructive domain training," says John Hallal, president of Lockheed Martin Information Systems. "Through this initiative, we are focusing the training capabilities of five existing companies under a common banner to better meet customer requirements. Products and services in the new Lockheed Martin Training line of business portfolio span the training continuum for flight, naval, and ground systems applications for military, civil, and commercial customers."

A common thread for virtually every military contractor at I/ITSEC, regardless of what element of simulation it represented, was the need to find commercial and consumer outlets for its products and technologies — vital not only to the fiscal health of the company, but to its ability to continue serving the military market, as well.

"In terms of sales volume, the consumer market is the Holy Grail, trying to get into the mainstream of that market," says Norm DePeau, InterSense's director of marketing. "In our case, we've seen modest growth in the military side, but it has declined as a percentage of total sales because the other markets are growing more rapidly. The military tends to be an early adopter but, as the technology moves more mainstream, it drops as a percentage of sales. We market the same products on both sides — military and commercial. Some aspects were funded by the government but productized for commercial markets, so they do meet the concept of COTS [commercial-off-the-shelf]."

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