An IDF incubator for the ‘start-app nation’
The TILT unit develops mobile apps for more effective training. Those skills come in handy post-army, too
Graduates of Unit 8200, the IDF’s intelligence gathering unit, are the backbone of Israel’s cyber-security industry. Meanwhile, soldiers in TILT, the IDF’s Interactive Learning Technology Section unit, develop interactive games, videos and apps to help medics and emergency medical soldiers and reservists learn or refresh their field medical skills. After their service, they may be prepared to be tomorrow’s mobile entrepreneurs.
While cyber-security is an important part of Israeli tech, the mobile application scene has exploded in recent years. Some of the biggest exits of Israeli tech companies in recent years — notably Waze and Viber — were mobile apps. Playtika, an Israeli start-up which develops games, is a dominant presence in Facebook gaming. Dozens of other top mobile and video games and applications, including Fiverr, GetTaxi, Rounds and eyeSight, have Israeli pedigrees.
“They call Israel the Start-Up Nation, but it’s also the ‘start-app’ nation,” said Lt. Eliran Peled, who heads TILT. “I can’t predict the future, but I would guess that some of the soldiers in this unit are going to become well-known in the Israeli start-up world. What we do here has a lot of application to any training or educational venue, as well as for pure entertainment. Those skills will definitely be applied to a lot of different settings in the future,” said Peled.
TILT was conceived when Peled was training to become an IDF medic. “I started going through the course material and showed it to my father, who was also an IDF medic — and he told me that it was more or less the same material he had trained with 30 years ago. In fact, when I took the medic course, they told us not to use the Internet to get information. How ridiculous is that?
“Obviously, it was time for an update,” said Peled. “A kid in school today will learn more in one day than a kid living 150 years ago learned in a lifetime. There is a lot more information vying for our attention, but our brains haven’t gotten any bigger and our ability to retain and remember information isn’t any better than it was back then.”
Thus TILT was born. “Every generation has its own preferred ways of learning,” said Peled. “If textbooks with color photos were once the best way to teach, today, we as a society are used to doing things on the Internet, on mobile devices and getting our information quickly and neatly. Google and Wikipedia have made sure of that, and we decided we needed to use these same tools to update the IDF’s training protocols.”
In the year and a half since it was established, TILT has produced over 150 projects, including dozens of videos and several games, and the unit is working on a new website that will make it easy for medics to become familiar with medications, pharmaceuticals and treatments used in the field via 50-second viral videos. TILT has its own YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on specific topics, including the structure of the body, how the digestive system works and how cells obtain energy. The videos include real-life lecturers backed by animations and graphics, as well as animated videos of techniques and treatments.
None of the videos is longer than 15 minutes, and most are between five and 10 minutes. They quickly and neatly make a point and give viewers something solid they can walk away with in an entertaining and memorable way. “In a classroom, these lectures could take hours, but a lot of the time would be wasted on turning pages in books, preparing charts, setting up mannequins as models, administrative tasks, etc.,” Peled said. “Our videos boil down what they need to know into a series of easy-to-understand and easy-to-digest presentations, tailor-made for young people who grew up on YouTube.
“For many people, the material itself is hard enough to deal with, and paying attention is a challenge. We present the essence of these lessons in just a few minutes, with animations showing exactly what is being discussed, colorful 3D charts and graphs, cartoon scenes, etc.” Peled said. “Soldiers can watch them at their own pace anytime, focusing on one concept at a time. The animations make it much easier for them to understand the material, too.” Once they are familiar with the material, they learn much more quickly and efficiently in lab or field training sessions, he added.
One app that TILT soldiers have developed is Seven-Boom, named after a popular group game for kids. In the app, doctors and paramedics have to do triage among seven soldiers injured by a terrorist bomb. The soldiers have varying degrees of injuries, from light to serious, and users have to come up with the right treatment for each in the “golden window” treatment time of 5-10 minutes. If they succeed, an ambulance shows up to take the soldier to a hospital for further treatment. If they fail, the soldier dies.
“It’s exactly like it would be on the battlefield, except the drill can be done at home, on a smartphone or tablet,” said Peled. “Obviously, you would have soldiers do real battlefield drills, but this lets them prepare and practice so they have a leg up when they do their actual training or when, in the case of a national emergency, there’s no time to conduct a battlefield review exercise.”
Seven-Boom is designed to help medics practice their skills and knowledge, geared towards individuals who are involved in emergency medicine, but TILT personnel are working on a slew of other games and applications, including a 3D app in which a field worker tends to an injured soldier in the midst of battle. All of TILT’s apps are designed to let soldiers practice their skills, said Peled, and most of them will be available to the public as well.
Soldiers in the unit are drawn from the the regular population of IDF inductees, and all have a background in video technology, animation, the arts or “a general openness to the uses of technology,” said Peled. “We need people who are flexible and understand the implications of tech.” News of the unit has spread among inductees, and Peled gets hundreds of applications. “We interview 60 people a month, but I have room for just seven soldiers.”
The army brass has seen what the program can do with few resources, and a major expansion of TILT is in the works, Peled said, despite the skepticism that greeted the idea at first. Peled was unsurprised. “It’s a generational thing,” he said. “It took me a while to convince the higher-ups in the army that this was a good idea, because they didn’t quite understand it.” There were the inevitable turf wars that emerge when a brand new idea appears, threatening the old way of doing things and the people in charge of those old ways.
The army leadership now realizes that TIL, and Peled, are a valuable resource. “We’ve been selling the idea of experiential education, based on ‘fun theory‘ — getting people to do difficult things better by making it fun — to different units,” said Peled. “We even produced a book showing other units and divisions what could be done with this technology and how to utilize it in training.” As a result, TILT is set to expand from its current eight members (including Peled) to 45 in the coming months. The new teams will begin producing materials for other training objectives.
Peled expects the transition to tech-oriented education to be much less painful than some skeptics believe. Far from rendering old-style teachers and guides obsolete, personnel will have an opportunity to help trainees improve their skills and use their talents more effectively. “In the new model, students learn many of the basic skills on their own and review them in training sessions, with teachers having more opportunity to help the students who need more help. This way the army gets more and better-trained personnel, and teachers can ensure that the personnel produced by their program are top-notch.”
The program can also help the army integrate more learning-disabled personnel, many of whom have great talents, but, due to focus issues, can not make it through the IDF’s tough training process. “Overall, I see the education system in the IDF changing in the years to come, with different teaching methods adopted for different populations. Some learn better from a book, but others — dyslexics, for example — have a hard time with learning from books. TILT’s methods are perfect for populations like that.” Peled knows what he’s talking about: “I myself have dyslexia, so I know what we are producing is effective. Until now the army has not had the means to deal with this kind of training, and I think TILT’s methods could be a good first step.”
Soldiers in the unit must have in-depth knowledge of the subject they design an app or video for, so research is a big part of TILT’s work. “Obviously we have to be in constant touch with professionals, both medical and educational, to make sure we are getting the information right and presenting it properly.” TILT soldiers are the ones who go about gathering the needed information to the extent that, without intending to, all members of the unit have become experts in many aspects of field medicine.
They’ve also become experts in developing original material and creative takes on applying apps and videos to education. “Before beginning this project, I made a thorough study of digital education products, thinking we could use off-the-shelf tech, but there was nothing of the type we envisioned for TILT, so we develop everything ourselves,” said Peled.
That approach has had another important benefit for Peled and his unit. “Working here is just like working in a tech incubator,” he said. “We all work together in the same room, where everyone has their workstation and is assigned an aspect of the project we are currently working on. The vibe here is very ‘Rothschild,’ like the tech incubators in Tel Aviv,” Peled said. “In that we are different from 8200. Nothing here is top secret, or even secret at all — but in my opinion what we do is just as important for the army as what 8200 does, and the same goes for Israeli technology in general.”
Click below for a TILT video on the IDF’s protocol for dealing with an imminent attack from weapons of mass destruction: