VR proves reliable for tracking shooting performance

Virtual reality technology can do more than teach gun skills to law enforcement and military personnel, a new study suggests: It can accurately record shooting performance and reliably track individuals’ progress over time.

In the study of 30 people with varying levels of experience handling a gun, researchers at Ohio State University found that a ballistic simulator collected data on the shooters’ accuracy, decision-making and reaction time – down to the millimeter in distance and millisecond in time – on a consistent basis.

Alex Buga

In addition to confirming that the simulator – called the VirTra V-100 – is a reliable research tool, the findings could lead to the establishment of the first-ever standardized performance scores for ballistic training in virtual reality.

“To our knowledge, we are the first team to answer the question of whether the simulator can be converted into an assessment tool and whether it is credible to use on a daily basis,” said Alex Buga, first author of the study and a PhD student in kinesiology at Ohio State.

“We figured out how to export and interpret the data. We focused on the three big challenges: marksmanship, decision-making and reaction time to measure 21 relevant variables – allowing us to put a report in a user’s hand and say: ‘This is how accurate, precise, focused and fast you are.'”

The study was published online June 6 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Jeff Volek

U.S. military leaders and law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in increasing the use of virtual reality for performance assessment, said Buga and senior study author Jeff Volek, professor of humanities at Ohio State. Earlier this year, an Ohio Attorney General’s Task Force on the Future of Police Training in Ohio recommended incorporating virtual reality technology into training protocols.

Volek is the principal investigator on a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense aimed at improving the health of service members, veterans and the American public. As part of that initiative, the research team is investigating the extent to which nutritional ketosis reduces the detrimental effects of sleep loss on cognitive and physical performance in ROTC cadets, including their marksmanship as measured by the VirTra simulator. Verifying the results of the simulator for research purposes led to the attempt to extract and analyze its data.

“We used it as an outcome variable for research and we found that it has very good day-to-day reproducibility of performance, which is crucial for research,” Volek said. “You want a sensitive and reproducible outcome in your test where there is not a lot of variation in devices or equipment.”

Because the lab also focuses on human performance in first responders, researcher conversations with military and law enforcement communities convinced Buga that the data collected by the simulator could be more broadly useful.

“I created a few programs that allowed us to calculate the shooting data and create objective training measures,” he said. “This equipment is close to what the military and police use on a daily basis, so this has the potential to be used as a screening tool across the country.”

Users of the simulator control the infrared-controlled M4 rifle by firing at a large screen onto which various digitally generated images are projected – no headset required. The Ohio State rifle has been retrofitted to produce the same recoil as a police or military weapon.

The simulator's user interface included tasks that assessed marksmanship, decision-making, and reaction time.  Image: Alex Buga

Study participants included civilians, police and SWAT officers, and ROTC cadets. Everyone was first familiarized with the simulator in a single learning session and then completed multiple rounds of three different tasks in each of the three study performance sessions.

In the first task, participants shot the same target a total of 50 times to obtain measures of shooting precision. The decision-making assessment involved shooting designated shapes and colors twice within two seconds on a screen with multiple shape and color choices. In the reaction time scenario, participants shot from left to right on a series of plates as quickly as possible.

Internal consistency assessments indicated that the simulator generated good to excellent test-retest agreement for the 21 measured variables.

All participants were well rested and completed the study sessions at approximately the same time of day. Self-assessments showed that participants’ overall confidence about their shooting performance increased between the first and last sessions. They also rated the simulator as a realistic assessment tool for low-stress shooting.

The low-stress and well-rested conditions were important for establishing baseline performance measures, the researchers noted, which would then make it possible to evaluate how injuries and other physical demands of first responder professions affect shooting performance.

“This simulator could be used to assess the effectiveness of specific training programs designed to improve shooting performance, or to evaluate marksmanship in response to various stressors faced by the same law enforcement and military personnel,” Buga said. “These new lines of evidence have allowed us to push the boundaries of tactical research and lay the foundation for the use of virtual reality in advanced training scenarios that support national defense objectives.”

Other co-authors, all from Ohio State, included Drew Decker, Bradley Robinson, Christopher Crabtree, Justen Stoner, Lucas Arce, Xavier El-Shazly, Madison Kackley, Teryn Sapper, John Paul Anders and William Kraemer.

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