ExpeditionDI lets soldiers train in a collaborative virtual environment

A game where 'dying' can save lives

The squad moves cautiously down the dusty, almost claustrophobic alley. Every sound is magnified, yet nobody hears or sees anything out of the ordinary. It’s simply another street with no name somewhere in the Middle East.

The point man issues a command to his team, but perhaps he isn’t clear enough about what he wants. Most of the squad does the right thing, but one man is a bit confused and ends up looking the wrong way for an instant, leaving open a hole in their careful defenses. The ambush that falls on the squad is quick and deadly. In the blink of an eye two soldiers are killed. The Americans return fire, killing the assailants -- but also several civilians standing around in the nearby market.

Slowly the dirty street fades from view, replaced by the reality of a Virginia warehouse or a California parking lot. None of it was real. The enemy combatants, the civilians, the nameless street and even the avatars of the soldiers only existed inside a simulation called ExpeditionDI.

The instructor running the virtual reality simulation has brought the team back to the real, safe world. They will all watch the recent exercise, determine what went wrong and make adjustments. This intense form of gaming could save a life.

ExpeditionDI in use at the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center

Designed to train dismounted infantry (hence the DI designation in the name), Quantum3D's ExpeditionDI, is used primarily right now by the Army. It was recently deployed at the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center for use by the 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East.

“ExpeditionDI is designed to reinforce physical skills,” said Pratish Shah, vice president of sales and marketing at Quantum3D. “Soldiers learn how to position and fire their weapons, when to take a knee and how to work effectively in a team.”

Quantum3D has done a lot of work with flight simulations  and wanted to bring that same level of total environmental immersion to soldiers who fight on the ground, Shah said.

The system comprises a head-mounted, goggles-like monitor that drops down in front of a soldier’s eyes from his helmet, providing a 1280-by-1024 resolution display capable of showing highly detailed images. Because the goggles are so close to the eyes, it takes up almost the entire field of vision. A little room was left on the sides, Shah said, so that trainees wouldn’t become completely disoriented and divorced from reality. They can see the real world in their peripheral vision.

View through the goggles of the ExpeditionDI system

There are also sensors positioned along the helmet and legs of the soldier, so that the avatar in the simulation will mirror his actions. If a soldier kneels down or turn his head, the virtual soldier that represents him will do the same. This lets the soldiers see each other and communicate inside the same scenario. Each soldier wears a backpack that contains a computer with Wi-Fi capabilities. In addition to driving the simulation for the soldier, it also sends out positional data to other participants and back to the operator running the exercise so that everyone is experiencing the same conditions.

Shah said there was no theoretical upper limit for how many soldiers could interact within the simulation at the same time. Each soldier would simply need a backpack with the program’s hardware and all the related sensor gear. The highest number of people he’s seen training together is 32.

Each soldier also carries a realistic-looking weapon. Models include an M4 carbine and an M249 light machine gun, weighted to feel like the real thing. In addition to having embedded sensors so the simulation knows how a soldier is handling a weapon, the rifle also has a small joystick with which the soldier controls the walking, and running of the soldier's avatar. That means the simulation can be setup anywhere, from a dedicated training center to a parking lot to an office. Each soldier requires only about 10 feet of space so that he can turn and properly maneuver his weapon without hitting something or another person. 

Andrew Pedry can testify as to how realistic ExpeditionDI can get. He’s a retired Marine Corps sergeant who served in the infantry as a sniper and saw combat in Iraq when he served from 2000 to 2004.

Pedry said that during combat in real life, a squad needs to effectively communicate orders and information very quickly. “That’s very hard to learn without going out in the field,” he added. “Once people start shooting, you have to do it concisely. You don’t see everything. You have to rely on the point man to tell you to go to the next building. You don’t want to get killed because you didn’t know what system they were using to identify the next window to cover.”

As far as the system itself, Pedry said putting on the equipment seemed quite natural. The backpack and all the sensors, plus the helmet and weapon, felt to him like a typical light combat load. And even though, at 32, he’s a bit too old to have been raised playing video games, transitioning from the real world to the simulated one seemed natural.

“I was surprised how realistic the simulation can get,” Pedry said after testing ExpeditionDI with a small fire team. “I sweated through my shirt every time, and it wasn’t because of the heat. The intensity of the system really made my pulse pick up.”

But Pedry, who also plays some first-person shooter video games, says that ExpeditionDI is a lot different from gaming at home. “First off, the weapon handling characteristics with the simulation are very realistic. The fundamentals of marksmanship are reinforced,” he said. “That’s important to me, being a sniper, but the real value of ExpeditionDI is learning teamwork and communication.”

Although Pedry doesn’t think ExpeditionDI can replace actual physical training, he believes it can be a great supplement. “There’s lots of downtime in the unit,” he said. “PFC Whoever might not see it, but there’s a lot of coordination to actual physical training. Units have to rotate through, and time is limited. But if they can run through the simulation in their downtime instead of doing busy work, it will help to reinforce what they learn.”

The other big advantage Pedry sees with ExpeditionDI is its ability to replicate the mission environment that a solder is going experience in the theater of operation. “The most dangerous time for soldiers is right when they first get in the theater,” he said. “But ExpeditionDI can be programmed to look like where they’re going.” That way, the architecture, the native dress and the general atmosphere of a new place won’t seem so alien, which will lead to better situational awareness and less chance of a soldier missing something important, Pedry said.

Shah said that all the civilians and enemy combatants inside the simulation are backed with an artificial intelligence to help them react like a real person would. For example, a civilian might mill around in a market but will certainly react if he hears gunfire or sees people shooting. The person running the simulation can create scenarios to teach different lessons, though teamwork is always stressed.

When Pedry tested the system, he did so with a squad of troops with mixed levels of experience. Some, like him, had seen real combat. One man had not yet deployed outside the United States. After a few runs through different missions, it didn’t matter. They were operating like an experienced unit. They had made their mistakes and learned from them in the virtual world. The fact that some of them “died” didn’t matter. Death in ExpeditionDI is nothing more than a learning experience.

Shah said he hopes soldiers are able to take that experience into the real world and keep themselves safe when the bullets are real and the stakes are much, much higher.

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