Technology

Total recoil? Gun simulator targets army and sofa warriors

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Media captionWATCH: Dougal Shaw find out how the gun simulator works

Two American technology entrepreneurs have developed a gun simulator for the military that could be a hit for video gamers - but will it weigh on their consciences?

Kyle Monti and Martin Holly don't usually do technology showcase events. They are more used to military conventions.

"Those guys want all the gory details," says Mr Monti.

"They want to make sure the product is as realistic as possible for military simulation.

"Otherwise people use one [a weapon] for real in the field and they freeze."

Mr Monti and Mr Holly are at a showcase event for emerging virtual reality products in London.

Their visit was almost delayed when Her Majesty's Customs took a long, careful look at their invention: The Striker Virtual Recoil (VR) simulation gun.

It is a fake gun that is designed to kick just like a real one, and they are showing it off as part of a virtual reality computer game, shooting people.

"It was originally designed for the military," says Mr Monti, chief scientific officer at Dekka Technologies, the name of the two entrepreneurs' company.

"The centre of weight is plus or minus 5% of the real weapon, and the kick is plus or minus 5%."

These are the military requirements, he explains.

Image caption Martin Holly of Striker VR demonstrates the gun

The pair created the gun simulator while working in a technology incubator in the US city of New Orleans.

The company next door was developing visuals for military training exercises. It suggested making an electronic method for gun kickback simulation, to replace the normal gas-driven, pneumatic method, explains Mr Monti. The electronic method means gas cylinders don't need to be continually replaced, potentially bringing efficiency savings.

"It's awfully fast," he marvels in his Southern drawl.

"You can deliver slight kicks, heavy kicks, shakes, vibrations, the whole gamut."

Tube of magnets

This flexibility means it can replicate the feel of shotguns, rifles, small handguns and even grenade launchers.

This is achieved by a tube filled with magnets inside the gun, which is manipulated by two copper coils.

As the coils are switched on and off, the rod's movement can be controlled.

"The linear motor is extremely programmable, it has a precision of around 1mm [0.04in], and it can get up to velocities of 7.4m [24.3ft] per second," says Mr Monti.

Patents for the technology are in the process of being issued.

In fact it is a similar technique to the one used to manipulate bumpers in pinball machines, he points out.

Image caption A magnetic rod in the device produces the kick

And trying it out, it certainly delivers a sharp kick.

The realistic results so impressed a procurement officer with the US Department of Veterans' Affairs that it is investigating using the technology in conjunction with Oculus Rift's virtual reality kit to help victims of post-traumatic stress in war, says Mr Holly.

It will allow them to recreate the moments that traumatised victims in a controlled way, as part of their therapy, he explains.

The trip to London has also led to a five-figure investment sum for a feasibility study for a defence company that deals in military training.

However, not everyone sees Mr Monti and Mr Holly's product as an attractive proposition.

"Training for recoil is not an especially challenging component of the many skill sets that a soldier must be proficient in to conform to Western military training standards," says Justin Bronk, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute and part of its Military Sciences programme.

"Standard Nato 5.56mm calibre assault rifles have very low recoil to begin with," he says.

Ethical question

But Striker VR is fighting on two fronts. It is also eyeing up the lucrative video game market, enticed by the possibilities created by virtual reality and its quest for ever greater immersion.

Because the mechanism is programmable and can change the centre of gravity of a device, says Mr Monti, there is a wide range of applications for gaming.

"We're thinking of Harry Potter wands, and tennis rackets," he says.

However, since the dominant genre in the games industry is the first-person shooter, commercial logic suggests if the technology in Striker VR is to gain traction, it will be as some kind of weapon.

Image caption The buzz around Oculus Rift is attracting immersive technologies to the virtual reality market

The two partners come across as contrasting characters.

Soft-spoken Mr Monti is most at ease talking about the physics behind the gun's mechanism, while Mr Holly appears more focused on the business opportunities and defers all questions on the science to his partner.

Pressed on the subject, it becomes apparent that Mr Monti has thought in depth about the ethics of making gun violence in video games more realistic.

"That's something we've thought about and this gun would never go into any games - the type of weaponry that would go into games would be futuristic," he says.

He is more comfortable with the prospect of sci-fi applications, and cites the popular game Halo.

"We're talking about guns that would shoot plasma discharge, high voltage, things in that realm. You're never going to go from the virtual world to training to do something in the real world.

"I'm not an advocate of training people how to use weapons who don't even know how to use weapons."

Media glorification

But Striker VR technology was shown off in London as a conventional weapon - an M4 Carbine AR-15 to be precise. And when the firm scored the coup of Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey trying out their kit, it was also in the guise of a conventional weapon.

Mr Monti accepts that if the technology was sold to a third party, it could end up being used to simulate conventional weapons in video games.

But pushed on the connection between video game violence and real world killings in the US, Mr Monti points the finger back.

"The media almost glorifies a lot of people, so when they do their horrific thing they get their name on TV, they get a constant barrage of information about them, so they aggrandise these acts. It's a lot of different things at play."

After the interview Mr Holly is crouching on the pavement outside smoking a cigarette. He is worried that the issue of gun violence will dominate discussion of their technology.

As the company is just a two-man band, much will depend on which partner, if any, they team up with.

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