Public release date: 30-Nov-2006
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Contact: Claire Bowles
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Would be rookies face video guantlet

WRITTEN exams are so last century. Concerned that pen-and paper tests do not offer a realistic assessment of how a soldier will perform in the unpredictable environment of a battlefield, the US army is developing virtual reality aptitude tests for recruits.

"It's about thinking on your feet," says developer Albert Rizzo at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina del Rey. "Instead of using pen and paper you are placed in a virtual environment and told to solve problems," he says.

One test already developed for the virtual environment assesses a soldier's ability to recall objects while carrying out tasks. First the subject memorises a number of target items, and then has 10 minutes to navigate through the environment using hand-held keypads, identifying the items along the way.

Littered throughout are items designed to confuse them. So, for example, if the environment was a marketplace, one goal might be to spot a man on a cellphone leaning against a wall, says Rizzo. Throughout the area would be several other men leaning against walls in a similar manner.

In contrast, written aptitude tests do not assess how people cope with real-world distractions, says Rizzo. "Would you prefer it if a pilot flying you on vacation learned how to deal with wind shear by training in a simulator or reading it in a book"" Rizzo is now analysing the effectiveness of the system by testing 15 volunteer soldiers whose performance levels have already been assessed in army training camp exercises. He has also recently received funding to extend his system to test recruits' ability to concentrate on monotonous tasks for sustained periods, and to focus on multiple tasks at once.

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Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe

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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 2 DECEMBER 2006

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