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At GEOINT, Space Force and NGA lean into the metaverse, whatever that means

The theme of this year’s annual GEOINT conference: “From Maps to Metaverse.” (Photo credit: USGIF)

GEOINT 2023 — While Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft already may have abandoned the metaverse as yesterday’s news, the Defense Department and Intelligence Community continue to embrace the concept — with the theme of this year’s annual US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) here in St. Louis, “GEOINT: From Maps to Metaverse.”

The only rub is that no one seems to have precisely the same definition for what the metaverse is, how exactly to get there or what to do once inside. To hear officials here and in the past tell it, sometimes it’s all about the data, data fusion and how data is delivered. Sometimes it’s about real-time man-machine teaming. And while for some the term is most closely associated with creating realistic synthetic training environments, for others it is a kind of digital “theory of everything” at the heart of the future way of war.

Here, even those with a clearer vision of what the metaverse could be were wary about suggesting it’s an all-in-one panacea for next-gen problems — and in one case, wary of calling it anything more than a “buzzword.” Rather, officials suggested the real value, for now, is to leverage the individual pieces of technology involved and slowly build from there towards something more in line with the sci-fi vision of the future battlefield.

“[W]hile we are looking at metaverse as wearing little dragon avatars running around little digital block worlds, the reality is that, in a military, and I would argue in a corporate context, the metaverse is more of the integration of environments, the ability to use open standards to do real-time exchange of data, so that way we can share and operate in a co-simulated, distributed, synthetic environment,” said Michael Torres, chief of digital infrastructure and SpaceVerse at the Space Force’s Chief Technology and Innovation Office, during a May 21 panel discussion.

RELATED: Into the military metaverse: An empty buzzword or a virtual resource for the Pentagon?

However, he said, “I would probably even argue that metaverse in itself is overplayed. It’s a construct. It really is distracting in many cases from what we’re trying to achieve, which is how do we bring a unified training and more importantly, operational landscape, across multiple domains, both military domains as well as industry domains, academic domains, while enabling us to enforce security where possible, but more specifically being able to allow for live, dynamic, operational and training experiences across any platform, using any technology, for any purpose.”

Christopher Johnson, deputy chief technology officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, had a more critical take.

“It’s a buzzword,” he said. “The metaverse has been around for a while. It’s everything from how we interact with with people online, from the early days of massively multiplayer online games, to wearable technology today, and as we get to the era of smart glasses to be able to interact … to the further fringes of science fiction, all the way out to the holodecks that we all remember from watching Star Trek when we were kids, right?”

That said, he added, “There’s an infinite combination of use cases that you could potentially get from the metaverse and its associated technologies.”

The end-game, said Torres, is to move from training individuals to do one task in a simulator “to establishing an integrated experiential experience that is evolving with the temporal data that’s important or the sensor data that’s being produced in real time, ultimately leading to what we’re calling as ‘more cognitively elastic’ individuals. The idea [is] that they’re not only learning to do one function on one simulation for one purpose — pilot, playing fighting jets — but being able to bring land, sea, air and space into a common simulation across multiple platforms, and allowing them to … be able to react to decision-making in real time regardless of where the data is happening.”

And eventually, he added, to move from simply setting up training environments to using similar immersive tools in the real world.

Col. Molly Solsbury, commander of the Army’s 513th MI Brigade which that provides intelligence support to US Central Command, told the same panel that for operators like herself, the metaverse “means, ‘What’s in the art of the possible that’s going to help us imagine the future in a both a human and a virtual way?’”

She explained that what commanders want to see movement from today’s three dimensional GEOINT models that can be used for training in one domain to something “multi-int and multi-domain” that can help decision-making in the field, and perhaps even allow collaboration with allies in different locations around the world.

“It’s about decision-making, and decision-making is advantage for us. And so the metaverse should help us make decisions,” she said.

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