Chris Whitcomb vividly remembers the day in 2009 when his M1126 Stryker armored combat vehicle took a hit from a roadside bomb in Iraq. An infantry officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Chris was serving a nine-month tour of duty in Taji, just north of Baghdad, when the bomb exploded under his vehicle as he sat in a passenger’s seat. “The way the Stryker is designed,” he explains, “it’s designed to survive hits like that.” Fortunately, he and his team suffered only minor physical injuries, and Chris gained a new appreciation for the M1126.
When he returned home to Pennsylvania, Chris settled into a new life. He became a husband and father of two children and started a photography company in Lititz. However, he felt like he needed a bigger purpose. “I’m sitting there for months on end thinking, ‘How can I separate myself as a photography studio from the thousands of other photographers out there?’” Chris recalls. One day, while playing a video game that involved a camera that looked all around a digital environment, Chris had a “light bulb” moment: “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, this looks really, really amazing. This looks realistic. How did they do this?’”
That moment led to months of online research as Chris taught himself about the world of 3D design, and he realized he had a talent for the creative process. “What I found is that I’m really good at creating 3D environments, or the world that you see around you within the computer,” Chris says. Seeing the benefits of 3D modeling for business uses, such as architecture and interior design, he created a new company called BluShell Productions to supplement his photography business. As his skills and experience progressed, Chris started to wonder about other applications for his designs.
His thoughts turned to his experiences in Iraq. “I started working up a concept of reenacting one of my experiences in Iraq, which was just sitting in one of the hatches of the Stryker at nighttime and just looking around. I built that world. Then, I created an animation where you’re just sitting there looking around and somebody shoots at you. You have a round go right by your head. Around the same time I created that, I just happened to stumble upon an article online about how some therapists were trying to use virtual reality to treat PTSD. It just kind of all came together at that moment.”
It was in that moment that Project M1126 was born. Named after the Stryker vehicle that saved his life in Iraq, the objective of Project M1126 is to create immersive virtual reality worlds that simulate the experiences of combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Wearing a virtual reality headset and carrying a remote that feels like a military weapon, a patient experiences a startlingly real combat environment as if he or she is there in real time. A licensed therapist controls the environment of the application, adding people, vehicles, trees, roads, and even ambient noises in order to perfectly recreate scenarios that cause particular stress for the patient. Chris based the project on positive research showing that exposure therapy—repeated, systematic exposure to a stressful event—helps the patient become desensitized to that event over time.
Chris knows, through both personal experience and his research, that many veterans suffering from PTSD are hesitant to seek professional help. “It’s one of the reasons I keep doing what I’m doing,” he says, “I want to help. This is not, ‘Come on down, sit on the couch, and have your head shrunk.’ Instead, you just sit here and put this headset on, almost like a game.” Chris is hoping that the video game-like format will prompt more veterans to seek therapy for their PTSD. While M1126 is still in development, he is eager to connect with local therapists who might be interested in using the program.
“My hope is if I just had one therapist come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I used this with a patient, and they’re doing great now.’ I just want one person to be impacted in a positive way and then I’ll be happy.”