LOS ANGELES -- While training students for the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, Army leaders found the course didn't capture all the intricacies of responding to incidents.

So, they enlisted the help of the Army's academic research partner, the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California along with the U.S. Army Soldier Center's Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, Florida.

Lying in the heart of a growing tech community, ICT researchers here developed the Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment. The interactive training program, known as ELITE, features 13 scenarios that Soldiers could potentially face when dealing with reported incidents.

Students will interact with a simulated member of an Army unit, played by a virtual actor, who had been involved in a simulated incident of sexual harassment or assault.

To successfully complete the course, users must elicit enough correct responses in a given scenario. The course simulates a role-playing game, where users can unlock elements of the course by reacting in the correct way. Users can review missed concepts and practice lessons they didn't get right during their first trial.

After interfacing with the program, the Army reported a 40 percent increase in knowledge of the course curriculum at the SHARP Academy at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

"What we've noticed is that people respond more freely and openly when there is actually just a virtual human or avatar as opposed to another person," said David Cobbins, ICT project manager. "So they're going to actually act differently based on who they're talking to."

The programs currently are available to download for Soldiers and civilians with a common access card at the MilGaming web portal: https://milgaming.army.mil.

ICT researchers worked closely with members of the SHARP Academy to help develop the training materials and also used service field manuals for reference. The ICT staff penned the scripts for each of the training sessions and hired voice actors from a local Los Angeles production studio.

Cobbins, a former Army medic who completed his master's degree in fine arts and writing for film and television at USC, said knowledge of the Army helped make the creative process easier.

"We know how Soldiers talk," he said. "From that we were easily able to develop stuff that the Army understood."

The programmers took the template of a Navy virtual program and developed it into an interactive counseling version for SHARP counselors. Each variation of the training has been broken into three phases: instruction, practice environment and after-action review, where users get quizzed on scenarios.

Researchers designed one variation of the training, the SHARP team trainer, for senior non-commissioned officers and commanders. The program evaluates leaders on how they respond to incidents of sexual assault or harassment within their units.

They also designed another variation for U.S. Military Academy cadets and a third for junior enlisted Soldiers. Instructors currently use the training at the SHARP Academy to train victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators.

The training will eventually become standard throughout the Army, said David Nelson, creative director of mixed reality research at the ICT. Training programs using similar technology have been used to train more than 1,200 Soldiers at Fort Benning's Manuever Center of Excellence since 2012.

It will also give Soldiers a more accurate depiction of a real-life counseling session with a victim or potential offender within a unit.

"Right now what the Army is doing is role playing -- role playing with other Soldiers they know," Nelson said. "So (SHARP students) are not going to respond the same way to a real victim or somebody they think is a victim."

ICT researchers have begun the next virtual training project called the Digital Interactive Victim Intake Simulation, or DIVIS, a program designed to train sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates on how to respond to sexual assault victims. Intake is the process by which a SARC or advocate will process information given to them when a victim has reported an incident within the Army.

The simulation will also help train SARCs and advocates on how to better respond to victims seeking counseling with the use of real actors. The actors say a series of previously recorded responses that are designed to accurately react to users the way an actual victim might react.

The responses of students to the actors can then be standardized in order to more accurately evaluate student performance, Nelson said.

Researchers will also attempt to develop emotional fidelity by working closely with the academy to accurately portray a victim's response. Nelson and his team will do informal research studies at the SHARP Academy, where they will conduct informal user studies on how actors can portray empathy, actively listen and respond objectively.

"If I'm playing the part of a sexual assault victim, and I haven't experienced that and I'm just kind of reading off of a script, you're not getting the nuances that you might from someone who really is going through it," Nelson said.

"If it's actually somebody who's a victim, they might shut down and not respond to any more of your questions," he added. "So if we can provide that level of emotional fidelity with a real actor in a real scenario, that'll be an improvement as well."