Building virtual worlds at Boeing

Creating simulated wartime environments takes close collaboration, but it’s the process rather than the tools that determines success

Want to see how an F-16 will react to the latest antiaircraft weapons? Tip Slater is your man.

As director of virtual operations for The Boeing Company's Integrated Defense Systems group, Slater is responsible for creating virtual environments that Boeing customers, chiefly the U.S. Department of Defense, use to test the latest wares and ideas. His team of engineers must collaborate effectively to make sure the events live up to customer expectations and go off without a hitch, especially considering a four-star general may well be looking on. Boeing uses various tools to collaborate among its far-flung business units, but Slater says it's the processes surrounding the tools that determine whether they do any good.

Can you describe what your job entails?

I belong to an organization called Analysis Modeling Simulation Experimentation. Our job is to create an environment in which we can test out concepts and ideas for our customers, the majority of which are military. If a customer wants to try a wartime scenario, he can't afford to fly or move all the military [equipment] that he wants, and you can't afford to blow it up either. So, we provide an environment where we bring in live, simulated and computer-generated entities.

Our job is to pull together this synthetic environment so that we can test out a concept or a hypothesis. For example, we can actually take an F-16 flying over the desert in southern California, and the pilot will see on his radar scope all of the virtual and computer-generated entities that we have in the environment. So, we've got a real plane that gets the signatures in his cockpit that state that there are other entities working around him, when in fact those entities are digital [creations]. And that allows us to put the assets into an environment and test them out. So it gets to be a very complicated environment.

And LabNet is the network that connects the various Boeing labs that may participate in these events?

Yes. We usually operate about 70 to 100 labs on the network at any one time. We've got the capability of connecting [all 700 Boeing labs], but we've never done it. The network is very fast and very capable. I can only handle probably 10 milliseconds of latency before the pilot actually sees it on the screen.

What is the role of Web 2.0 and other collaborative technologies in that environment?

When we run an event, it's like a production. Behind the scenes we've got a number of people at each one of the labs who are managing the network and the visualization that's going on. And the tools that they use to collaborate are instant messaging and some unique voice systems. It's like behind the scenes of Monday Night Football. The event producer is connected to all the different labs that are involved in the event and maintaining the control of the operation. Those are the collaboration tools to make sure that the system operates.

Outside of the actual events, what collaboration technologies do you use to get work done more effectively?

When we set up a demonstration or an experiment, we have to bring people from across the enterprise to make it work. That's where we use collaborative tools. For each event we set up an event site using Microsoft SharePoint. People can post their announcements in there and drop in briefs and so forth. We use Microsoft Project on SharePoint as a communication platform. Information, charts, notes, schedules and such are posted there, as opposed to using e-mail. We use WebEx routinely [for Web conferencing].

We're just starting to use wikis to help build events. We're using instant messaging, primarily when the software folks are working on coding. So, if we've got somebody in Washington, D.C., and he's working with a software coder in Anaheim, [Calif.], they use instant messaging to talk to each other while they're developing the coding.

We're looking at bringing in some collaboration tools that will allow us to do computer-to-computer collaboration. One too we're evaluating is called the TouchTable, [which is a computerized table] that exists in two locations and both operators are looking at the same screen. And they can expand the screens, contract the screens; there's a lot of visualization involved. They can be looking at a map and deciding what to use as a target area. Somebody can highlight a spot on the map and say, 'This is the area we're looking at. Do you think that will work?' Another guy says, 'Yes, but that means the ingress doesn't meet the customer's expectations. We have to get something that takes us through a mountainous area or else the hypothesis is wrong.' And they'll have that collaboration among themselves.

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