Perhaps following a very convincing demonstration by Microsoft to a politician, the US Army has announced a contract worth up to $22 billion to equip soldiers with AR (augmented reality) accessories that should give them a decisive advantage on the battlefield. Except the reality didn’t quite match the movie script.
Microsoft announced last year the receipt of a 10-year contract worth up to $21.88 billion to equip the US military with 120,000 AR (augmented reality) headsets to use to communicate real-time information to soldiers and assist mission coordination. The high-tech accessory is based on the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) design, developed as an enhanced version of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 technology.
According to the description provided by Microsoft itself “the program provides enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing and decision making in a variety of scenarios.”
Except, the lights emanating from the gadget originally developed for commercial, entertainment applications make you an easy target on the battlefield. But until this “impediment”, some soldiers professional in military techniques but still unfamiliar with state-of-the-art VR/AR equipment have found that simply using the HoloLens accessory can leave them unable to fight effectively, their attention distracted by dizziness, eye pain and vomiting that can persist for up to several hours. Of the soldiers who tried it and experienced unwanted side effects, more than 80% developed the symptoms mentioned within three hours of use.
The report adds that the level of support expressed for the new AR helmets “remains low” after the fifth round of testing with soldiers in simulated combat conditions. Worse, the unofficial conclusion would be that the Microsoft-developed accessory does not “necessarily contribute to soldiers’ ability to perform their mission”.
According to Microsoft, “augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to aid decision-making.”
Beyond user sensory overload and induced side effects, the HoloLens 2 technology-derived accessory appears to have other drawbacks that may disqualify it on the battlefield. The first seems to be related to the insufficient adaptation of the retail product, as the devices distributed to soldiers are not fully insulated against light leakage. But the second, more difficult to correct, issue is the way that wearing the device blocks peripheral vision, preventing fighters from detecting threats that are not highlighted on the screen.
At least in the current phase, classified as “operational demo testing,” the custom HoloLens hardware has failed in four out of six evaluation scenarios.
Despite the obvious shortcomings, the tests were rated as successful by superiors not directly involved in simulated military operations: ‘Emerging results indicate that the software achieved success in most of the military’s evaluation criteria.’ In other words, someone in the US Army has a vested interest in seeing the multi-billion dollar contract brought to fruition, leaving the current grievances to be resolved, eventually, down the road.