There must be a better way
After the Parkland High School mass shooting many of us were shocked that again a school became a bloodbath. It appeared everyone would talk of changes, but eventually grow silent. However, this has not been the case due to the smart & courageous efforts of a number of student survivors; everyone agreed something needs to be done. Even the President of the United States, quickly formed a “listening event,” to hear from past & present survivors and parents of those that died at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland. Yet the only thing President Trump offered was to arm our teachers. His proposal was met with silence. I knew that the President had made up his mind because that is what Fox News had been promoting the week before. Sure enough as the days passed, his conviction towards this idea strengthened and he started pushing Congress and state governments to pass legislation and funding for training and firearms purchases.
As a military veteran of many years with experience in firearms, I knew that just knowing how to shoot at targets is a completely different than using a weapon in a combat situation and the training and the professionals needed to provide this type of training would not guarantee how a person will react in a live situation. And frankly anyone (like the president) who feels having a gun will change the odds in a situation where you do not have the advantage; simply has never been exposed to a situation like this. Yet, how do you expose someone to situation like this without exposing them to danger?
It came to me as I reviewed a few upcoming VR games that mimicked that used the VR controller as a weapon, I knew that this would not only be a safe solution, but require very little in the amount of money, space or the number of people involved. This is not an new idea and Homeland Security and Army have already created an School setting for their “First Responder Simulator” to simulate the actions to take place during a Red Flag situation. However it has some limitations being a standard computer FPV (First Person View) based simulator and more importantly does not allow a teacher to act out in the scenario, especially with a handgun. But using a controller to mimic a handgun is not very realistic, so I created a better solution.
Creating the VR handgun Replica
Using replica of a Walther PP 99 Airsoft with CO2 blowback I connected it to a Vive Tracker. What made this replica different is that it uses a CO2 cartridge that sends a burst of compressed CO2 into a chamber, causing the the upper receiver to “blowback” performing the same action as a real Walther PP 99 that expelled the shell and loaded the next one for semi-automatic operation. Deciding on this model due to authentic action, I had to figured a way to mount a Vive Tracker, but also needed to have access to the data pins to allow switches to be attached for trigger action, safety latch operation, magazine eject and even a switch that detects when your hand is gripping the handle.
Mounting the Vive Tracker had had some challenges if I based it on HTC’s mounting guidelines, which always showed the Tracker with its unique tri-legged design facing up. This posed some problems because you would have had to mount the Tracker above the upper receiver without actually making contact with it, as not to impede the blowback action. This made the design somewhat clunky and more complicated as you can see above.
Luckily I recently saw an article from Microsoft Research who was also using a Tracker for one of their research projects and saw that it was mounted legs down. This gave me an idea of using the built-in lower accessory rail, normally used to mount lights and lasers sights, for the mount to slide onto and tightened by a couple tension screws. I also created a Pogo pin receptor plate and wired each separately with thin 28 gauge wire-wrap wire out to four micro-switches which had little strips of 3M™ VHB™ adhesive that would provide a strong bound to the gun, yet be small enough to go unnoticed, but more important to minimize any changes to the normal actions and feel of the handgun replica. Once I had the design done I sent it off to Shapeways and less than week later I had strong nylon SLS based components that could be assembled with wires and pins inserted and tightened to the gun and Tracker.
The results were immediate. I could now move around the handgun in my hand that moved a similar pistol in VR. Now I just needed to align the 3D model matching the real world model, and through proprioception I could reach out in the real world, pick it up and move it around as though it were same handgun in VR. Now it was time to add the logic glue to detect the micro switch closures.
Pulling the Trigger in VR
Sadly this did not work out initially and crashed the Unreal Engine, but since I had already run into problems using more than three Trackers along with the Vive hand controllers while pressing switches on the hand controllers. A developer of the ‘Vive MoCap Kit’ hand solved this with custom SteamVR plug-in and I knew that this would probably solve my issue with using a single Tracker with switches. It did and I was now back to testing the Walter PP 99 micro switches.
The first switch I had up and running was the trigger and this was pretty easy to set by using a set of four controller inputs called ‘Generic Steam Controller’ a set of controller functions in the Unreal visual scripting language called ‘Blueprint’ and one of these was labeled ‘trigger’. Once this input was programmed to push an event in the Blueprint, I just needed a few more paths for setting up a projectile and ballistics, which was pretty easy since Unreal already has built-in projectile function. It is not a true ballistic function, but good enough for these early tests, and to be replaced by a much more accurate model in the coming week.
What was not so easy was figuring out why my VR gun shot in only one direction. This was solved by making the gun routine the only device in the Pawn without attaching it the user’s pawn or camera. Making it literally an object that you could lie anywhere in the real-world area and it would appear in similar location in the VR world. This sets up all kinds of scenarios e.g. placing it on magnetic mount that is attached to your waist, ankle, or even shoulder strap, as well as box (drawer) or a raised surface matched to a VR shelf or cabinet. Even lay it on a surface area to mimic your desk.
Now that I could reach out and pick up the handgun, I could also aim it like the same gun I was aiming in the real world. The effect was well — shockingly real. Add to the fact that I could now pull the trigger and the gun jolted back, causing the VR gun to do so as well since the Vive Tracker movement followed the movement of the gun. My mind was completely fooled into believing what I held in my hand, was the same gun I held in VR. I then added a hand that was made visible only when the grip switch was pressed continuously adding to the believably that I had picked it up and was gripping it with my VR hand. I then finished up the switch for the Safety latch that allowed me to press it to disable or enable the firing of the VR gun, as well as a routine to check how many bullets were fired, preventing me from firing it further when the magazine was empty until I pressed the magazine eject switch and then loaded a VR magazine with my left hand (controller).
The ultimate goal was to perform many of the same steps you would have to perform in the real-world to allow the user to remember or more important, be mindful that a handgun is not a toy and certain steps must be followed in order to operate it properly. It also guarantees that under duress, that if you forget a step or don’t remember the location of a feature like the safety latch, than you are effectively just pointing a stick at the assailant. But it also reinforces that even if you were able to obtain the weapon and remembered the steps to ensure the gun was ready to fire — would you have enough time to be effective if the assailant was already in your classroom? Would maybe barricading the door, or even locking it be a better way of protecting yourself and your students?
Creating the Classroom
Creating a realistic VR handgun was only a part of the awareness app and frankly a minor part. The other components were to create an environment that looked and felt like a classroom, with realistically moving students and an AI controlled shooter that had an indeterminate path for unpredictably during the simulation each time it was started up.
You also have audio cues via an alarm bell & intercom system to warn you that attack was occurring (if you had forewarning) as well as realistic physics models for many of the objects that could be pushed around to create barricades as well providing material properties that interact with the bullets by altering their paths, being absorbed or just passing through, simulating the effects of stray bullets by either the shooter or yourself that could have dire consequences if they made contact with you or your students. Finally, collision bodies on your VR self, the students and the shooter that would detect if you had been fatally hit, or wounded by a direct hit, stray bullet or even debris and by adding the KOR-FX haptic vest will allow you to feel the impact of it as well.
Keep in mind that unlike a computer & monitor based simulation — with virtual reality, especially in an open space setup where you have some mobility, you will feel as though you are in the classroom and it is the goal of this simulator that you are only interacting with real life actions like light switch flipping, button pushing, objecting moving, and even your own movement is limited to how far your ‘open space’ is set to.
Finding out more
The completed VR application will be available in August when the new school year starts, but an alpha version will be shown through April 22-23 at the “Immersive Design” conference hosted by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
If you are interested in finding out more on how to obtain a copy of “Only Seconds” for your educational center or district, or a you are a member of the Parent Teachers Association and need a tool to convince proponents of weaponizing your teachers on why this should not be the first solution you look at. Or maybe just practicing procedures under randomized event environment in the simulator might help you come up with new ideas or structural changes to make an attack less deadly? Then please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or our website owlcreek.tech (5/1/2018), where you can order your free copy of the the awareness/training simulator “Only Seconds,” as well as the replica handgun conversion kit ($49.95), or the complete replica and Vive Tracker kit ($225). We will also also be offering training and setup services to those who do not have an onsite VR or computer specialist to set up their HTC/Vive system for small fee and travel costs.