Fade in: a new sort of movie maker

From the May 2010 issue of the nicely redesigned Denver Magazine, which is becoming a pretty interesting read these days.

He’s Got Game

From Denver Magazine, May 2010

During a tense scene in Army 360, the new Russell Phelps movie, a seemingly friendly Afghan villager offers an extraordinary gift to a U.S. Army officer: a finely crafted scimitar that has been handed down for generations. But seconds before the officer can accept the sword, the villager’s brother erupts in anger, shouting that the stranger is an undeserving intruder. Dimly lit, with shadows suggesting an undercurrent of menace, the moment crackles with tension and a possibility of violence.

It’s good filmmaking, but you’ll never see it at the multiplex or on Blu-ray. That’s because Phelps isn’t a Hollywood film director, and Army 360 isn’t a feature film. It’s a simulation program played over personal computers and produced by InVism, Inc., the Greenwood Village company Phelps founded.

InVism created Army 360 for one of Phelps’ biggest customers, the U.S. Army. In the scene described, the action halts mid-frame as a quiz appears onscreen, asking what the appropriate response should be for the officer involved. (Cheat sheet: The correct answer is to express profuse gratitude but turn down the offer, saying you couldn’t possibly accept such a valuable gift.)

At the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, new recruits run through dozens of similar training episodes in Army 360 as they prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other unfamiliar places. The combination of highly realistic filmed scenes with response elements borrowed from video game software helps soldiers prepare to deal with cultural scenarios they may soon encounter. “We want to help you learn the hard lessons here, before you get there,” says Maj. Gen. M. John Custer in a video documentary about the Army 360 program.

An Unlikely Role for a Reluctant Gamer
If you were to cast the role of aspiring entrepreneur who would find his way into the video game industry, Phelps wouldn’t even make your B list. A former U.S. Navy commander and Arabic linguist, the soft-spoken, red-haired 48-year-old rarely played video games as a kid growing up in Iowa and, even now, says his interest in the category is more “clinical” than recreational. He didn’t even play Pong back in the day.

He does watch movies, though. Phelps got the idea for InVism after seeing National Treasure in 2005. In that film, the protagonist, played by Nicolas Cage, pieces together a series of clues embedded in historic documents and objects to locate an epic pile of riches. Coming out of the theater, Phelps thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we really could solve problems that way?”

The epiphany triggered an 18-month odyssey in which Phelps studied video game software and briefed Pentagon and Department of Defense officials on the possibilities of using techniques borrowed from the gaming and film industries to improve the way the military trained its personnel.

Working with commercial video game software developers, Phelps created his first commercial production in 2008. Made for the U.S. Navy, GeoCommander is a simulation game that helps operators with little or no experience use advanced geo-location technology.

The award-winning game was an impressive start, but Phelps wanted more. In particular, he sensed these simulation programs needed a dose of realism that most video games, with their historic dependence on fictional avatars, couldn’t deliver. So he started exploring the costs and logistics involved in staging and filming scripted vignettes that would immerse users in a realistic world — in other words, playing to their inner moviegoer. The idea caught on with Phelps’ military customers, who liked the idea of re-creating real-world scenes and moments within an interactive game platform. “It turns out they didn’t want more virtual reality. They wanted more reality, virtually,” Phelps says.

Learning by Doing
By Phelps’ estimation, more than two million Department of Defense trainees will have completed InVism simulation programs by the end of this year.

Now, Phelps is intent on not only helping military personnel deal with cultural immersion issues, but exploiting some of the most elemental concepts of human learning. The idea of combining interactive gaming elements with realistic filmed sequences traces back to ideas espoused by Aristotle: that humans learn best by doing things. “It gets closer to what the human brain experiences,” says Steve Weyl, a Silicon Valley technology veteran and intellectual property advisor who is InVism’s chief innovation executive.

When Weyl met Phelps in 2006, the former Apple bigwig was struck by the possibility of applying the sort of gaming-meets-training technology that Phelps was developing for broader markets. That’s what InVism is doing now. In addition to carving out a unique place in military training, Phelps and his team are producing corporate and academic training programs that employ similar learn-by-doing interactive features. In one example, Phelps shows a video production that transforms a college professor’s dry, monologue-style lecture with sidebar text elements and on-screen, interactive quizzes that maintain a running grade. The combination does seem to sustain interest and attention. If only they’d had that when the rest of us went to school.

Stewart Schley, who writes about business, technology, and media subjects from Denver, likes to think the hours he spent playing Asteroids and Galaga during college contributed (somehow) to his understanding of math and history.