Verification Goes Virtual

How researchers at the Princeton Nuclear Futures Lab are bringing full-motion virtual reality to the work of disarmament.

Jenny Johnston / June 15, 2018

On a recent Tuesday, visitors to the United Nations Office at Geneva were greeted by a strange sight—a seasoned diplomat in a business suit, shuffling across the building’s vast marble lobby, face engulfed in a giant virtual reality headset. A cluster of diplomats hovered nearby, watching their colleague swipe the air with VR touch controllers and awaiting their turn. These weren’t just any diplomats. They were an international team of experts tasked by the UN with examining the role of verification in advancing nuclear disarmament. And they weren’t playing “Minecraft” or “Star Trek: Bridge Crew.” Rather, they were busy verifying that the warheads they were seeing through the VR headset were authentic nuclear weapons.

“Most of the diplomats had never experienced VR,” explains Tamara Patton, a PhD student in science, technology, and environmental policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a lead member of the Princeton Nuclear Futures Lab team that created the VR simulation. Neither had the handful of UN officers who poked their heads out of doorways and came to try it, too. Some of the officers and diplomats described the experience as “amazing.” Others suddenly saw for themselves the promise of VR as a space where the international community might make progress in ways it hasn’t been able to before.


Disarmament verification—the process of establishing and ensuring that all weapons-grade nuclear materials are accounted for when a country dismantles its nuclear weapons—is tricky business. There is almost nothing more secret and sensitive than the details of a nuclear weapons program, which makes it highly complex to establish verification procedures that both the host country and inspectors can trust. It’s no surprise, then, that there are currently no agreed-upon processes for verifying the dismantlement of a single nuclear weapon, let alone a whole nuclear program. But for a world without nuclear weapons to be possible—and future treaties aimed at disarmament to be viable—we need them.


To address the challenges of disarmament verification, though, you first have to know what they are—which, given the high levels of national security involved, is itself a challenge. “We can’t say, ‘Ah, this is what some weapon states are worried about,’ because we often don’t know,” says Alex Glaser, associate professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton and director of the Nuclear Futures Lab. “Either we haven’t asked them what they worry about, there’s been no opportunity to tell us, or they have not yet thought through some of these issues.”

Until now, the best way to answer these questions has been through live exercises—elaborate in-person events, like the US and UK’s “Exercise Letterpress” and the UK-Norway Initiative, that simulate the inspection of a mock nuclear weapons complex or the dismantlement of a faux nuclear weapon. While these exercises always create new insights, says Patton, they’re both pricey and resource intensive. “Live exercises are valuable to our community, but they can take a lot of time to plan and execute, and they’re difficult to adapt, especially when you run into a part of any proposed verification system that doesn’t work and you might want to try something better.”

Hence the gaggle of diplomats gathered in the UN lobby. Virtual reality offers a new pathway for exploring the challenges of verification and experimenting with how they might be overcome. “We can do this in a virtual facility at a small fraction of the cost,” says Glaser. The Princeton team’s groundbreaking work to “develop full-motion VR to design and simulate new arms-control treaty verification approaches” is being funded through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a founding member of the N Square funder collaborative.

For Patton, the project represents an exciting next step in her efforts to bring a new level of interactivity to the nonproliferation and disarmament space. As an undergrad at the University of Washington, she had taken a series of courses funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration to attract more talent to the nuclear field. Her first course was taught by Ambassador Thomas Graham, who helped negotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and then USSR. “After that, I was hooked for life,” Patton says. But it wasn’t until serving as a research assistant at the US Naval Postgraduate School’s Common Operational Research Environment Laboratory and Remote Sensing Center, where she developed new techniques for creating 3D models of buildings and landscapes based on satellite imagery, that she found her calling—working at “the very tiny area of overlap between the worlds of arms control and digital art.”

At the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, she started applying her 3D modeling skills to nuclear problems. “I was interested in how we could adapt open source and other geospatial analysis tools for our challenges in this field,” says Patton, 29. At the Vienna Center, she started bringing the environments she was creating to life, designing an interactive verification experience in a dismantlement facility that could be run from a desktop computer. “Suddenly, we could look at verification questions from the inside out.”

In 2015, Patton started talking to Glaser about deepening her work. It was good timing. Virtual reality headsets were improving—“People were starting to be able to use them and not be nauseous,” says Patton—and using VR for verification was starting to become a real possibility. “I always thought this was an exciting approach,” Glaser explains. “When Tamara decided to come here, we started thinking about where we could take this.” They were still tossing around ideas when the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York put out an RFP for “projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

In creating the VR simulation they ran in Geneva, the team tackled a host of design and developmental challenges—from constructing the virtual facilities and virtual verification technologies to working out simple things like how players would speak to one another or navigate between buildings. Ultimately, they presented three verification scenarios. In one, the diplomats, acting as inspectors, could randomly select a warhead from a nuclear submarine, watch it get loaded into a container, then use a radiation detector with an “information barrier” to acquire the warhead’s unique fingerprint. In another scenario, the diplomats found themselves staring at a 3D model of the thermonuclear weapon—dubbed the Peanut—recently tested by North Korea. “This was what most diplomats liked a lot—seeing a 3D model of a weapon that before was only seen in these pictures,” says Moritz Kütt, a postdoctoral research associate with the Princeton Nuclear Futures team who played “host” during the simulation.


The Geneva event was a demo, not a serious exercise. Nevertheless, the team has already received useful feedback that it will use to tweak the VR environment. “This is one of the reasons that we saw VR as a really big opportunity,” says Patton. “We have this extra level of flexibility. When someone finds something they really like or don’t like, or we find a break in a chain of custody or discover evasion strategies in the process of working through an exercise, we can change it.” And starting with a notional facility designed to be as simple as possible can invite deeper engagement. “Participants might say, ‘If we add a door here, we can do X, Y, and Z, and it becomes much more realistic and plausible.’ In that way, they help co-design facilities that work best for everyone,” says Glaser. The more that experts engage with the VR environment, the better and more realistic it can become. And their ability to join simulations from a distance means that an even wider community of experts can get involved. “That’s one of its big plusses,” says Glaser. “It’s not an exclusive experience. Everyone can participate.”

There is a second part to the MacArthur grant, and it embraces this same principle—that in a world marked by rising nuclear risk, everyone needs a way to get involved. Through the grant, the Princeton team saw an opportunity to use VR as a means for engaging not just the nuclear expert community but the broader public as well. Working in partnership with Games for Change (G4C), a nonprofit that helps create and distribute social impact games, the team is helping to develop VR experiences designed to mobilize public awareness and more vocal political will around nuclear risk. “It’s about understanding what the medium is good at and why a VR experience is special and different from a game or a billboard,” says Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change and a key N Square partner (the N Square team introduced Patton and Glaser to Pollack). “We need to create an experience that draws participants in rather than alienating them with imagery or something that’s overwhelming and depressing, where the proximity is immediate but not directly on top of you.”

On June 30, at the G4C Festival in New York City, Pollack will announce which development studio the team has chosen to partner with on the project. Meanwhile, with a growing network of connections made in Geneva and elsewhere, Patton and Glaser are working toward their first “virtual” live exercise this fall—a comprehensive inspection where participants develop agreements and protocols and then execute them in VR.

Of course, they would be the first to admit that VR is not an end in itself. “Ultimately you have to make progress in the real world,” Glaser says. But it is not a stretch to imagine how a growing comfort with approaching and addressing disarmament verification challenges through VR can help pave the way toward new treaties being negotiated. We’re not there yet,” says Glaser. “But we’re really just starting now.”

story thumbnail photo: Michael Schoeppner