When Dave Bein turned up at the University of Iowa's Virtual Soldier Research Program lab in a hoodie and sneakers, he didn't realize he was there for a job interview. He thought the resident engineers just needed some advice on how to make Santos—the world's most advanced virtual soldier—look even more realistic.
But the lab had just landed a major contract and needed to hire a military advisor. A former Marine, Bein came away with a job he didn't expect to get—helping a digital human improve the safety and experience of real people. Now, three years later, the mechanical engineering major is both the State of Iowa and University of Iowa student employee of the year.
Bein was honored for his efforts on the UI's contract with the Office of Naval Research to optimize the equipment loads that soldiers carry. Working within the lab's home at the Center for Computer-Aided Design, Bein's created more than 100 detailed 3D models of Marine Corps weapons and gear, loading them into software that will help the U.S. military produce better body armor. To help design realistic avatars—the virtual embodiments of soldiers—he's also donned a spandex suit covered with motion-capturing devices and carried out a series of typical movements such as climbing walls or lifting a heavy pack.
Bein also serves as the UI's representative on trips to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Assigned to the task because he "speaks their language," Bein works with Marines to discuss research progress, collect data, and coordinate communication with the UI engineers.
"Replacing body armor that's not working would take years of research, money, and time to build prototypes and physically run Marines through test courses—plus just hoping that it's a good product," Bein says. "Our software skips all that and digitally designs a piece of armor that can be tested on Santos. This will help save lives and millions of dollars."
Growing up in Silvis, Illinois, Bein knew he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and join the Marines. After boot camp and a couple years of fleet service in Arizona, he was deployed to Iraq in 2006. Later, he was assigned to the Japan-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which responds to crises in the Asia-Pacific region.
As a child, Bein always loved to build things, so he considered a career in architecture after the end of active duty. He visited Iowa City and, although the UI had no such program, he felt it was the ideal place. So, he enrolled as an engineering student in 2011 and began work with the Virtual Solder Research Lab the following year.
Although he somewhat stumbled into his major and student career, such twists of fate have paid off for a reallife Marine turned virtual soldier.Video: center for computer-aided design