Armed with programming expertise and video game development experience, Daniel Norman was able to implement a convincing virtual reality experience.
But for this project contracted through King Crow Studios – the video game development company he works for in Baton Rouge – he wasn’t programming a fictional space station kitchen or a magical sports arena, like he had for the missions. previous ones.
This customer wanted him to recreate the cockpit of a B-52 aircraft for a VR simulation in order to train pilots for the US Air Force.
“I sat in this cramped cockpit, overwhelmed by the complexity of this 60-year-old aircraft and all of its functions,” Norman said. “Now I know all those buttons and gauges back and forth.”
King Crow Studios, founded by Cody Louviere, a native of Lake Charles, is working on the third phase of a contract with the Air Force, backed by $ 6.5 million in funding for small business innovation research . The first phase of the SBIR contract gave King Crow Studios $ 50,000 to seek virtual reality pilot training in August 2019, and the company moved to phase 2 with an additional $ 1 million to develop a training prototype in January 2020.
At the end of the contract in 2025, King Crow’s software will train B-52 pilots at a fraction of the current cost. The company virtually replicates aircraft and equipment to immerse new pilots in procedural training without burning fuel or occupying military personnel and equipment.
Baton Rouge-based software development startup King Crow Studios has won a million-dollar contract with the U.S. Air Force for virtual reality training.
Louvière said he launched the startup in 2015 to develop video games without corporate influence. King Crow has worked on games like “Hive Slayer,” a first-person shooter experience, and “Galactic Chef,” a spoof of “Iron Chef” that inadvertently led King Crow to sign a military contract.
King Crow has designed a step system in “Galactic Chef” to help users make recipes. When a player completes a stage, there is an auditory and visual indication that he has passed. Then the system takes the players to the next step. If players don’t know what to do next, an object will glow, allowing them to interact with it.
“We have included all of these user experience features to produce a good quality video game,” Louviere said. “We didn’t know we were building the backbone of a military training program.
King Crow Studios is located in the Nexus Louisiana Technology Park, home of Nexus Louisiana, a non-profit economic development organization, and Precision Procurement Solutions, a federal contract company. Louviere said he presented King Crow’s procedural step system to the Air Force in accordance with recommendations from both companies, and they advised him throughout the application process.
Several companies have secured phase 1 SBIR funding, but King Crow Studios is the first XR company to enter into a phase 3 contract.
Local software development startup King Crow Studios received a Small Business Innovation Research Grant for virtual reality training software …
“People expect working with the military to be difficult, but the air force knows what it wants,” Louvière said. “They are organized, supportive, understanding and it is so easy to communicate with them.
Pilot instructors meet with King Crow producer Sarah Kent on a weekly basis to provide feedback and suggest training improvements. The 24-year-old is also in charge of cybersecurity for the project.
“It’s kind of life and death,” Kent said. “So when a trainee reports that a button or a button is not working in training like in the real plane, we can fix that quickly. “
Norman said that while the Air Force project is deadly serious, there is an air of levity when it comes to designing a virtual Air Force base. Developers are free to combine the creativity of the game with militaristic attention to detail in VR.
“The Air Force has such a specific culture,” Norman said. “We like to inject that culture into training to make it realistic.”
King Crow 3D artist Ethan Castiello said on a trip to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, a pilot joked that the soldiers were “just monkeys flying planes,” so Castiello said. put bananas in the virtual loading room.
Norman said the base was littered with Air Force memes, so he replicated the memes in VR. He learned that when pilots make a mistake on the base, they blame a fictitious soldier named Mike Brogan, so he put “Mike Brogan” on the trainees’ virtual name tags.
“At the end of the day, we’re a nerd bunch of gamers,” Norman said. “If we’re not having fun being creative, the projects can be mind-boggling. “
Louvière said that while these “Easter eggs” seem unnecessary, they actually help students withhold information from training.
“People withhold over 70% of the information presented in virtual reality training, as opposed to 50% retention in the classroom,” Louviere said. “We keep everything as serious as necessary, but we have seen that these Easter eggs make interns more engaged by really immersing them in the experience.”
Louviere said that since the pilots began training with the King Crow program, the Air Force has reported fewer errors and problems.
“So we know it works, but it starts this larger conversation about the capabilities of virtual reality,” Louviere said. “More experienced vets are wary of this type of technology until they put on the helmet. Young soldiers want to train and explore, and that kind of intergenerational appeal means good things for military recruiters.
King Crow Studios has 11 payroll employees. Half of these employees work on the Air Force project. None of these employees signed their contracts with the expectation of working alongside active military personnel.
“It’s always surreal,” Castiello said. “I graduated in fine arts and somehow found myself working with military generals in a bomber cockpit. To say that I never thought I was inside a B-52 would be an understatement.