Coalition Island: looking at the US military’s use of Second Life

Coalition Island – June 2020

In late 2008, the US Army made the headlines in a number of on-line periodicals such as Wired, when it announced the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was opening a “recruitment island” in Second Life, hoping to tap into the “4 million” users of the platform (yes, this was the era of hype about SL) into signing-up through a mixture of promotion and tchotchkes.

While that announcement was met with sniggers by some of the press reporting on it, it actually masked the fact that the US military had been engaged in evaluating Second Life as a platform for modelling, simulation and training (MS&T) activities for more than a year.

This work was centred on a group of regions called MiLands – Military Lands – which at their height (2009-2010) were made up of around 30 regions, split between the four major branches of the US military: Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Such was the US military presence, Linden Lab assigned Scott Linden to manage the regions and liaise with the US Department of Defense in its use of SL.

The MiLand Meeting Room, home of the MiLand Charter

Within those regions, Coalition Island, established (2009), was created to offer a public point of access to the US Military’s use of second Life. Today, it remains as a piece of Second Life’s early history – although it could in all honestly do with a little TLC as parts of it have not weathered the passage of time too well.

At its heart is a large pentagonal area – the symbolism here fairly obvious! On four of its sides, this presents photographs of each of the four military branches mentioned above Brownstone paths radiate each to lead to informational displays on how each branches was using SL – although both the Army and Air Force displays look more recruitment oriented, and the US Marine Corps is now conspicuous in its absence. The US Coastguard also gets a passing nod, with a small inshore patrol RHIB moored to one side of the island.

The fifth side of the pentagon comprises a broad set of steps once used for presentations (and now somewhat disconcertingly inhabited by three disembodied heads). At the top of these is the island’s former greeting / conference / meeting centre, the upper floor of which contains the Second Life US Military Coalition Charter, covering the aims and use of the former MiLands regions.

Coalition Island: the Team Orlando information display

Close to main conference centre is a display by Team Orlando, a collaborative alliance of U.S. military organisations working in modelling, simulation and training using a number of platforms including – back in 2009-2010 – Second Life.

While I was unaware of Team Orlando’s use of Second Life, thanks to Dr. Douglas Maxwell (Maccus McCullough in SL, and also the founder of he in-world group RL United States Military in SL), I had originally become aware of attempts by the US military to use Second Life as an MS&T platform, back in 2011.

As a civilian contractor, Dr. Maxwell was employed at the Navy’s Virtual Reality laboratories in Washington DC, and in 2008 he was asked to head-up the work in establishing a 12-region campus in Second Life to be used by the Navy Undersea Warfare Centre (NUWC) for training and simulations.

It is a computationally steerable persistent simulation. The capabilities in here are tremendous: in-situ scripting, terrain deformation in real-time, every object is composable, not static. We got the idea that if we could increase the fidelity of the physics in here, it could actually be very useful.

Dr. Douglas Maxwell discussing NUWC’s use of SL in 2008

Coalition Island: US Navy NAVSEA display for the Virtual Navy Undersea Warfare Centre (vNUWC)

Maxwell’s involvement with the military use of Second Life expanded in 2009 when he became the Science and Technology Manager at the US Army’s Simulations Training and Technology Centre (STTC), also looking to make use of Second Life. This came at a time when Linden Lab was engaged in the (ultimately ill-fated for a variety of reasons) development of the “standalone” (or perhaps more accurately, the “behind your firewall”) Second life Enterprise (SLE) product, and Maxwell and his team were steered towards SLE as a potential solution to their needs.

In fact, Maxwell’s team found SLE to be highly conducive to their work thanks to a greater freedom of control over the simulator software and capabilities than could be achieved with the “public” SL product. This allowed them to develop a number of feature-rich training simulations to help train troops in advance of their deployment to Afghanistan.

Nor was the STTC alone in the use of SLE – the US Navy invested in it, at one point filing a US government FBO request for the purchase of up to 70 SLE support licences for the product, worth in the region of an initial US $3.5 million, had it been approved.

Coalition Island: the US Air Force information display

But before that came to pass, Linden Lab opted to discontinue the development of Second Life Enterprise, thus ending US military interest in the product. For Douglas Maxwell and the STTC, this meant taking the lessons they had learnt and applying them to building a simulation environment using OpenSimulator (see: MOSES: the US Army’s OpenSim exercise).

Whether or not the ending of SLE development was also the cause of other branches of the US military stepping back from experimenting with Second Life, I cannot in all honestly say. Today, as far as I’m aware, the US military has little or no official involvement in Second Life. However, Coalition Island today stands window on a time, as short-lived in the scheme of things though it might have been, when Second Life was being looked at seriously as a platform for training and simulation, and so it remains as an integral part of the platform’s history.

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5 thoughts on “Coalition Island: looking at the US military’s use of Second Life

  1. Thank you, Inara for such a thoughtful reporting of SL history. Brings back fond memories of working with the Lindens and exploring possible applications of this unique technology to military training and simulation. SL was so different than any traditional constructive simulator we had in our inventory that we never ran out of possible use cases. SL, and later OpenSimulator, allowed us the freedoms with gaming technology to discover and create pedagogy and instructional design choices for next generation warfighter training. We owe a great debt to both communities.

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    1. Douglas!

      So good to hear from you after so long, and thank you! Trust all is going well for you. Im admit, I enjoyed looking back through notes from MOSES, etc., and attempting to re-trace MiLands history, although I’d like to have been able to do the subject more justice. If you’re back in SL at all, feel free to IM me!

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  2. Back in 2008-9 the army put out a call for volunteers to come try out their second life resources. I was part of the army family and gave it a try. That is what brought me to sl. And I’ve been an sl citizen ever since.

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