The Power of “What If”
By Eric Wright
Gutenberg’s printing press, Watt’s steam engine, Wright’s airplane, Kilby and Noyce’s silicon chip are all recognized as disruptive technologies, changing the course of history and the way modern man lives. But what if a technology emerged that changed the way people learned? Wouldn’t that be as disruptive as the development of the alphabet?
That “what if” is a reality and Central Florida has emerged as the epicenter of this transformative technology known as “modeling and simulation.” According to Waymon Armstrong, president and CEO of Engineering & Computer Simulations (ECS), “the possibilities are limitless.”
Simulations (ECS), “the possibilities are limitless.
Instead of using two dimensional architectural renderings or bulky models to help clients get a visual understanding of a building, now they can take a virtual tour, walk right into the building’s lobby or enjoy a panoramic view from the 30th floor. Simulations have moved beyond only training pilots to equipping combat medics to respond to wounded soldiers or preparing emergency response teams for disaster events, and even how to perform complex surgical procedures. And that is the tip of the iceberg; it is the undiscovered country of revolutionizing the way we learn and using visualization to refine the decision making process.
One of Armstrong’s early clients was trying to determine the best location for an airport traffic control tower. ECS was asked to provide a virtual 360º perspective from several proposed sites. In less than 24 hours, they were able to produce the perspectives and the decision was an obvious, “That’s it!”
This Isn’t a Simulation, But It is a Test
As cutting edge as simulation is, building a business that can catch and ride that wave of innovation is no easy task. Armstrong said smiling, “A book I’m working through suggested that the odds are so stacked against you, entrepreneurs should be recognized and awarded by the government just below returning veterans. If you get wounded in battle you get a Purple Heart; there should be something like that for entrepreneurs who come back after inevitable failures.”
Continuing he added, “Entrepreneurship is messy; it’s hard work; it’s all about delayed gratification. Moreover, it isn’t only the entrepreneurs who need the inspiration it is the people who work with them and their families.”
The journey for Armstrong began when he saw the power of simulation at what is now Martin Marietta in Orlando. The company he was with at the time didn’t share his commitment to the technology, so he decided to launch out on his own and, in May of 1997, started ECS. He realized then in the government sector what he sees now in the commercial sector. “No one has made simulation ubiquitous or pervasive. It is utilized in various industries, but the fields are ripe in countless other arenas,” he beamed.
However, by 2001, ECS was struggling to stay afloat. The dot-com industry had become the dot-bomb, and life-giving capital was being stretched thinner and thinner. Employees stayed on without pay, while Armstrong racked up about $700,000 in
credit card debt, back payroll and lease exposure.
“I’m turning 40, my wife and I had our first child, but the one glimmer of hope was all the debt was in my name; my wife’s credit was pristine. So I went to her, explained the situation and she not only went back to work to support us, she borrowed to keep us afloat.” Today, Armstrong’s wife Frances serves as CEO. “We had to work together,” Frances reflected. “I held two jobs and came in the office on the weekends to work with Waymon, assisting where I could.” Armstrong had to obtain legal protection, not to erase his debts, but to buy time until he could pay them. Since 2004, ECS has been on a steady growth trend and he added proudly, “By 2009, we had paid everyone off in full.” Paying off his debts was a position that surprised his legal advisors and bolstered his reputation.
Pay Day, Some Day
Living on vision, drive, and a string of credit cards, Armstrong hit trade shows and knocked on every door of opportunity, evangelizing for the technology and his company. Once, he flew all the way to California to approach a military officer because that was the only way he could get access to him. With nothing but his name and his picture, he went to the conference, which he described as “hundreds of men in the same uniform with the same haircut.” It took him a couple of days, but he spotted him in the food court and walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m Waymon Armstrong. Let me show you how we can help you.” The officer responded, “Okay,” and after their discussion asked Armstrong to come see him the following week; he eventually provided funding that kept ECS afloat.
The airport mentioned earlier was Atlanta International; it was a business relationship that came to Armstrong as a result of dogged perseverance and chance. Armstrong was in Austin, Tex. for a trade show and when other vendors had left for the day and the convention center emptied out, he and his associate decided to stay on “to get our money’s worth.” An executive from the airport approached him, as Armstrong recalls, “almost when they were rolling up the carpet, and talked to us and asked that we contact him.”
What he saw ECS demonstrate is what Armstrong sees as the secret of simulation – the power of ‘what if.’ It enables you to answer, “What if we did this?” or “What if we added that?” and then to actually see the outcome of that design or placement in an interactive three-dimensional environment. Not only does it assist in guiding the design phase of multi-million or billion dollar projects, it also helps sell these ideas to others.
Education for Digital Natives
The Department of Defense has led the way in digital education and the results have been astounding. The number of fatalities in the “platinum hour” (the first hour after being wounded) was 24 percent in the Vietnam War. Thanks to dramatic improvements in body armor, along with combat wound treatment and care using simulation training, in the Middle East conflict that number dropped to 6 percent. No one spends more money training in techniques, tactics and procedures than the military, and those TTP’s are changing constantly. The old “set and get” model of education can only take you so far; simulation based training has demonstrated adaptation and effectiveness.
A study was done by a doctoral candidate, using 300 Army and Marine personnel, to compare knowledge retention using different training methods. They compared hearing a lecture and seeing a PowerPoint versus seeing a PowerPoint and playing a game simulation. The Army participants showed a 9 percent spike in retention and the Marines 11 percent.
That is the power of ‘what if.’ To Armstrong, and other innovators in the modeling and simulation industry, it is the future and plays to the sweet spot of the next generation. Armstrong observed, “We live in a digital world, but many people my age and older are digital tourists or immigrants. We visit and even work there, but it isn’t our native land. The next generation is already there; they are natives.”