Training the Perfect Soldier

A Brief Introduction

Virtual reality, or VR, began to develop in the early 1900’s when Edwin Link developed the world’s first flight simulator. Looking back on it now, the equipment and technology looks antiquated, but at the time it was revolutionary. Pilots no longer had to rely on in-the-plane demos, videos, and instructor-based lessons, but instead could pilot their own adventure without the worry of crashing a few hundred thousand dollar plane.

About 20 years later Morton Heilig, a director and cinematographer, developed a device known as the Sensorama, which used stereoscopic images, sound, and smell to give the illusion of depth and reality. Developed in 1957, the Sensorama was crowned one of the earliest proven examples of multi-modal, immersive, video based technology. In 1961,VR took another leap with the introduction of the Heads-Up Display (HUD). A HUD project called Headsight, designed by the Philco Corporation, allowed helicopter pilots to navigate and see in the dark. Jump a few years and we’re in the 1980’s, where virtual reality made it’s way into NASA’s projects as they worked on projects related to new forms of human-computer interaction — most notably Dr. Michael McGreevy who worked to develop some of the most innovative, mind blowing VR systems and new applications of the heads up display. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the general public became aware of this new VR technology as it began to show up in mainstream media, movies, and devices began to advance the technology we have today.

Visual mediums influence our decisions and interpretation of reality much faster than written words ever will and many movies in the 1990’s and 2000’s play with the notion of being “plugged in”. While there are a lot of mainstream applications for an AR or VR experience, advanced AR and VR technology has been developed with budget from the Department of Defense for use in military operations, recruiting, training, team exercises, and analyze tactics and battlefield positions when troops are on the ground, in the air, or at sea.

The battlefield is not an easy place to be. I have mad respect for those in uniform.

War has high stakes. Having an edge on your opponent could mean the difference between life and death. And it’s not just about your life, it’s about the person standing next to you — they’ve got a family, a couple kids, and a partner back home that miss them. With a half trillion dollar defense budget, there’s no doubt we have the most powerful military presence in the world. From medical training to a simulated hostage crisis, VR is changing how we prepare for conflict.

Simulations and Training

Training plays a large roll in creating better soldiers, better leaders, better response times, better procedures, and less casualties. It’s no wonder that many military and law enforcement organizations have started training soldiers with programs in virtual reality when stakes are not as high and mistakes aren’t deadly. According to the Army’s website, their first training program called The Dismounted Soldier Training Program happened at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh, Indiana.

Soldiers and their squad were thrown into a warehouse wearing goggles and required to engage in building entry exercises, neutralize enemy fire, and care for injured squad members, all while they adjust tactics, techniques and procedures to finish their mission. Soldiers wear a Head Mounted Display (HMD), control instrumented weapons, and wear gear that allows for complex movements and haptic feedback. A fully immersive situation like this not only builds teamwork, but puts soldiers through scenarios that they may encounter while deployed world wide.

One of the best parts of the DSTS is that we can create any operational environment, for our training in a virtual environment. It does not replace training, but it can add to it. We can bring the terrain of Afghanistan to the Soldier. It’s hard to imagine a mountainous terrain in Indiana, but the DSTS can create it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Hammond, Operations, 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East.

VR training is not just limited to infantry tactics, but can be used for everything from learning to fly a jet fighter to fixing a broken valve while aboard a ship or learning how to skydive with a 20lb backpack and gun. VR has the ability to each us how to do things we never would have thought we could do and mitigate risk in the process.

In the field

Technology differs in the field. Because Soldiers need to be 100% aware of their surroundings, technology in the field tends to lean towards Augmented Reality (AR) to enhance a soldiers experience and give them pertinent information to their mission objectives, provide support, and even detect and classify landmines.

I like to think of it like iron man.

Imagine your on the battlefield, while gunfire, explosions, and smoke is surrounding you. You hear you friend, Mike, over the com yelling that he needs your help. Your goggles kick in, showing you a path to Mike, his heart rate, and possible enemies in your path. As you start to run over, a huge warning pops across the screen telling you there is a landmine 10 feet in front of you, and shows you a clear path around it. As you keep running, it tells you there was recent gunfire from behind and tells you to be careful. You finally make it to Mike, safely.

Military objectives are becoming increasingly complex in nature. Additionally, there has been an increase in emphasis on the speed at which soldiers can make decisions, because the cost of poor decisions can be catastrophically high. If an AR technology is designed correctly and the technology can process enough information instantaneously, better and faster decisions can be made and turned into correct actions. To help alleviate some of the stress of new and demanding tasks, the military has researched and developed new tools for use during operations and training exercises.

Many times the challenge is way finding and access to information. Until now, soldiers had to look down at maps, stats, reports, or smartphone devices to access critical tactical information and get updates from their squad. Traditionally when reading, the soldiers head is tilted down and their attention is on the maps or devices and away from what is happening directly in front of them. ARA developed the ARC4 that “enables the soldier to acquire time-critical tactical information with their ‘head-up’ and ‘eyes-out’ on the environment.” AR has the potential to provide significant benefits in many application areas. Visuals can include directions, instructions, translations, infrared or “X-ray vision,” and, at the same time, shows which objects are physically present. ARC4 is a critical component for real time information, updates, and commands. It’s like a Google glass for war.

Treating PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event, like war. During a traumatic event, you think that your life or others’ lives are in danger, you may see horrid things, or maybe even have killed someone. It can make you feel afraid, depressed or angry. A soldier who has experienced a life-threatening event could easily develop PTSD.

VR can help treat PTSD by allowing a soldier to revisit painful memories, but allowing them to interact with the memories on their own time. This ultimately allows a veteran to change their beliefs and cause them to learn new ways of thinking and behaving. VR allows a doctor to monitor any physiological or psychological responses that the veteran may be having. The goal: to lose any feelings of anxiety caused by the experience and move forward so that they can lead a normal life.

Dr. Michael Valdovinos, chief of outpatient behavioral health at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, said in an Army release said “It’s an extremely effective treatment because it is a patient’s personalized reality that they learn to process, control and regulate. Visual memory is powerful, and if I can use that to help patients create their own movie scene, then they can move into it to rewrite their own script.”


VR and AR have the capability enhance all of our senses, elevating our sense of touch, capability to hear, and sight. The goal of the technology and VR isn’t just to create a new second world, but to enhance our lives. As these technology continues to grow and mature, they will far exceed our current state of thinking. For the military, soldiers will be able to walk the streets of a city they are deploying to, rehearse a future mission with their squad, and immerse themselves into situations they may go through. For all the rest of us, it’ll allow us to explore ancient buildings thousands of years after they’ve crumbled, explore new worlds we’ve never seen, travel across the world for a music show, or experience a cooking class in a different country. The reach is endless and the possibilities are limitless. Let’s get to designing new worlds.

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