For CDR’s on-going series on the SME (Small Medium size Enterprise) in Canada’s defence community, we sent regular contributor, James Risdon, to take an up-close look at Halifax-based, Modest Tree, a developer of training software and game-based training solutions for the military market. Here is our report.
In the hangars of the aerospace company, L3 MAS in Mirabel, Quebec, a few of the people doing maintenance on Canada’s CF-18 Hornets are using a cool new tool. It’s a headset that allows those maintenance crews to see holograms of components superimposed within their normal field of vision.
They can call up work orders, order parts, watch training videos and manipulate holograms of aircraft components all while seeing everything else around them. And, they can operate that headset, a Microsoft HoloLens bit of hardware, by talking to the system, gazing at items on the screen, or moving their hands.
“Mechanics can now go on an aircraft wing or under it and call up a component virtually with hands free and still use their tools,” says Sam Sannandeji, the founder and chief executive officer of Halifax-based Modest Tree.
Under a deal with L3 MAS, Modest Tree is working with the company to further develop this tool. L3 MAS provided the functional concept for the tool and collaborated with Modest Tree on the software development. Modest Tree’s team was responsible for populating the device with the information required by maintenance crews from L-3’s IETM and developing the augmented reality components.
In the Canada’s defence community, Modest Tree is quickly becoming known as the go-to firm for next-generation training software and tools for aerospace and defence applications. The company has two main software products, its Modest 3D Editor which allows users to develop 3D, game-like interactive applications easily, quickly and affordably, and its Modest 3D Explorer which makes 3D slides of real-life objects and allows users to manipulate them in slides, taking them apart, looking inside them or rotating them.
The company also specializes in developing customized game-based training applications as well as augmented and virtual reality training.
BORN OF THE GAMING INDUSTRY
Sannandeji’s brainchild grew out of the 35-year-old’s passion for gaming. A former software engineer specializing in the creation of sports games at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia-based HB Studios, Sannandeji joined the Dartmouth-based Atlantis Systems Eduplus - since then bought out by St. John’s, Newfoundland-based Bluedrop Performance Learning - seven years ago.
Altantis Systems built and delivered maintenance trainers and flight training devices featuring such aircraft as the CF-18 and Black Hawk and Sea Hawk helicopters. The company counted among its customers the Department of National Defence, Irving-owned Fleetway, Lockheed Martin, and CAE. It was an impressive roster of companies.
But, Sannandeji realized something was missing.
“There was a gap in their training because the training world and the military were behind the gaming world which is where I come from,” he says. He struck out on his own, founding Modest Tree in 2011, and was immediately called upon by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The military had hired Atlantis to develop an aircraft marshalling training program
and wanted to bring in Modest Tree. The contract was worth about $500,000!
This is before virtual or augmented reality became a thing. The final product developed by Modest Tree, used as its hardware, an early Xbox 360, known to gamers as the hardware and controller used to play Call of Duty 2, Gears of War and Halo 3, with gesture recognition technology.
The guts of the product was, of course, its software, a training program which used images of the Snowbirds’ Canadair CT-114 Tutor and Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopter in a video game format with multiple scenarios, including one in which a bird would fly into the engine. Trainees could use their arms to gesture and interact with the training program.
Since its beginnings in 2011, Modest Tree has continued to offer game-based training services and it currently counts some of the world’s largest aerospace and defence companies as its clients.
EXPANSION IN NEW BRUNSWICK
Since that first contract with the Air Force, business at Modest Tree has - pardon the pun - taken off. Its offices at 6300 Lady Hammond Road, just down the street from CFB Halifax Willow Park, are now crammed with about 20 employees but the company has doubled its workforce in the past year and there are plans to expand its offices or set up another office entirely in New Brunswick.
“We are seriously looking at opening something in New Brunswick,” says Dave O’Brien, Modest Tree’s vice-president of business development. “The New Brunswick government has a fantastic program for attracting business. They provide assistance in finding office space and in recruiting personnel.”
In Halifax, Modest Tree is looking to win contracts from the Canadian military to develop 15 courses, primarily for the air force and navy to replace outdated training programs.
With those deals and others in the works, Modest Tree could double its workforce this year alone, says Sannandeji. All of this explosive growth comes in the wake of a deal Modest Tree landed in November last year to sell enterprise licenses of its Modest 3D Suite, which includes all its off-the-shelf software, to the Canadian military, essentially allowing it to develop its own, in-house training programs. And, the deal also includes training by Modest Tree employees.
“It was a major milestone ... because now we’re a proven entity in the marketplace,” says O’Brien.
The deal, which was two years in the making, sent a powerful message to every supplier to the Canadian military.
PARTNERING WITH RACEROCKS FOR NAVY WORK
“When the Department of National Defence made our software the flagship of its tools, that had a ripple effect,” says Sannandeji. “We have experienced the navy requesting companies working on training for them to use our tools. That’s the way we met RaceRocks 3D.”
The Victoria, British Columbia-based education technology company and Modest Tree have formed an alliance, extending the Halifax company’s reach across Canada. Using Occulus’ virtual reality hardware, the two Canadian companies are developing a training program for the Canadian navy.
“RaceRocks purchased licenses (of the Modest Tree software) to build the training programs and we’re sharing the workload with them,” says O’Brien. “We’re working on a walk-through of a ship. A sailor will walk through and a crisis will come up and he or she will have to deal with it ... and all the responses will be scored.” This work is in alignment with the navy’s demand for the latest training technologies and increased use of game-based training.
MODEST TREE TARGETS INTERNATIONAL GROWTH
In the United States, Modest Tree’s products are offered through its partnership with Huntsville, Alabama-based Aegis Technologies which has developed relationships within the American defence community and specializes in modeling and simulation technology.
As demand skyrockets for training programs from companies whose employees were raised on computer games, Modest Tree’s O’Brien is expecting to see a surge in the “gamification” of training programs and an increased demand for virtual and augmented reality courses and tools from non-defence-related companies as well.
But, Modest Tree, which does about 55 per cent of its business with the military, is expecting the defence industry to remain its primary market even as it recognizes the tremendous potential for growth in the oil and gas, energy and medical sectors.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of that yet,” says O’Brien. “We’re building a client base with the military and aerospace sector which is where our present opportunities are.”