The U.S. Marine Corps’ virtual marksmanship trainer is receiving a long-overdue upgrade.

First introduced in the mid-1990s, the virtual trainer had not kept up with the times. “We were wearing different uniforms then. We were using different weapons,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matthew Harris, the trainer project officer with Marine Corps Systems Command’s Training Systems. “We are updating to make it feel like the world and the environment where Marines operate today.”

More than just look-and-feel changes, the upgrades to the Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer III leverage a range of electronic advances to deliver a more realistic, more effective training experience.

The Marines rolled out an early version of ISMT III to its reservists this summer. Now the trainer is being released across the Corps, with full deployment expected in 2019.

Developers say they took cues from the world of video games in seeking to upgrade what is, in effect, an elaborate video game experience. “This is easier to use and much more accessible,” said Col. Walt Yates, program manager for Training Systems. “The first generation had a big proprietary video disc that was used to project the images. This is much more like commercial gaming tech, so you spend less time learning to operate the simulator and more time getting down to the nuts and bolts of training.”

ISMT III also offers a more realistic experience. Previous iterations, for instance, didn’t distinguish between moving and stationary targets ― a critical distinction in real life. The new version uses a complex algorithm to reward shooters who can take out moving objects.

“The trajectory and path of the bullet over time is calculated, along with the movement path of the target. So it gives you credit for exercising the appropriate aim,” Yates said. “This is an important improvement.”

The upgrade also delivers a “day optic” feature, giving trainees a more realistic view of their targets. In the past, a user who zoomed in on a target would get a pixelated version of the object, which would blur more with increased zoom. In the new version, a filter allows for improved magnification. “Now we get a clearer image, so you see what it really looks like,” Yates said.

The improved system also has an expanded gallery of firearms. Instead of just one or two weapon systems, as in the past, the upgrade covers the full spectrum of small arms used by Marine forces.

The Marine Corps is not alone is seeking to upgrade its virtual training capabilities.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, for instance, has undertaken a joint effort with the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies; the Combined Arms Center ― Training; and the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation.

The Synthetic Training Environment, or STE, effort aims to create an immersive training environment that could be delivered upon request. STE looks to blend virtual reality, augmented reality and other technologies to deliver an immersive experience.

The plan “is to leverage commercial advances with military specific technologies to provide commanders adaptive unit-specific training options to achieve readiness more rapidly and sustain readiness longer,” Col. Harold Buhl, program manager of the Orlando, Florida-based lab and of the collegiate institute, said in an Army news release.

While less ambitious, ISMT III still represents a leap forward in training technology for the Marines, who now can train in a three-dimensional scenario, as compared to their previous 2-D experience.

Planners say these enhancements are due largely to advances made in the commercial sector, where the technology surrounding the virtual experience has become both more effective and more affordable.

“The video graphics cards and the rendering engines, the image generators, all have dramatically improved in capabilities,” Yates said.

And a graphics card that might have cost $10,000 a few years ago now sells for less than $200, “so the opportunity for higher video fidelity is affordable,” Yates added. “We don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for very good graphics and very good video behavior.”

Engineering firm Meggitt is the prime contractor on the project.

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