Army officials have been after a way to outfit soldiers with wearable computers for years, but have repeatedly failed to find a system that both delivers information coherently and avoids impairing troops’ perception of the battlefield.
The military’s notoriously Byzantine process by which it develops and adopts technology may not be entirely to blame, engineers that bridge both government and commercial technology spheres tell National Defense.
While parts of the military suffer from an “institutional rejection of innovation,” even in the swifter commercial sector wearable computers have generally been failures until recent advances, said John Clark, chief innovation officer for Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.
Based in Arlington, Va., Thermopylae specializes in taking commercially available technologies and converting them to military and government use.
“For years, people have been trying to make wearable computing happen, but to be honest … they have all been terrible,” Clark says.
The Army found that out the hard way during several efforts to create a wearable situational awareness and computing system for soldiers. So far, the service has nothing to show for its efforts.
“But there has been some really cool innovation that has happened in late 2012, early 2013,” Clark said. “How can we take those emergent technologies, and make them implementable and affordable for government and commercial clients?”
The most notable entry recently into the mobile-computing market is Google Glass, about 1,500 of which are in the hands of testers like Clark. Other companies, including a startup called Oculus VR, have developed or are in the process of bringing to market similar wearable computing devices.
While Glass was not developed for military applications, its importance is the awareness the device brings to the possibility of ubiquitous mobile computing, Clark said.
“For all the work Google has put into it, there is no real desire to take [Glass] and apply it directly to a military mission,” he said. “This is a consumer product. But because of what Google has done … there will be other similar models that are perhaps ruggedized that can apply directly to [special operations forces]. Or, it will inspire people to integrate the technology into riflescopes or night vision goggles.”
The point of Google Glass is to develop a revolutionary method of interacting with technology — to figure out the optimum way to deliver information and have the user digest it without distraction. Currently, the system performs only rudimentary tasks like sending text messages, taking photos and video and receiving news and social media alerts. Eventually, Glass or an evolutionary version will allow more sophisticated applications.
Instead of a pair of glasses or a monocle with a heads-up display, Glass positions a small prism over the upper right corner of the wearer’s right eye. The user can either slide a finger along the arm of the device or speak directly to it to perform a number of tasks like reading email or taking photos. The prism becomes transparent and is all but unnoticeable when not in use. There are no lenses or screens over the eyes, so the wearer can naturally hold a conversation or walk, unobstructed, even when the screen is activated.
The technology has gained the attention of scientists and engineers who develop and purchase equipment for the special operations community. However, concerns were expressed in May at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference that Google Glass in its current form could harm operators’ eyesight. Attention is being paid to what Google is doing with Glass, but extensive human trials will be necessary before a special operations sniper wears a pair on the battlefield, SOF officials said.
Raytheon is marketing a wearable joint tactical air controller system that allows ground forces to tag elements in the environment using a helmet-mounted monocle that covers the whole eye but is see-through. That system consists of a chest-mounted computer, the monocle and a smartphone worn on the wrist or elsewhere. It allows a soldier to call in an air strike on a target simply by viewing it through the eyepiece and clicking the phone’s screen.
Though only recently unveiled at the 2013 Paris Air Show, Raytheon’s Advanced Warfighter Awareness for Real-time Engagement (AWARE) system resembles similar concepts the Army has tested to provide computing and communication capabilities to soldiers.
Future Force Warrior, developed in conjunction with the now-defunct Future Combat Systems, sought to create a lightweight, integrated mobile computing system for soldiers. It was one in a series of “network-centric” infantry combat projects the military undertook during the past decade. Others included the Soldier Integrated Protective Ensemble and Land Warrior. The latter was canceled in 2007, then resurrected the following year under the name Nett Warrior. The program is designed to use both commercial, off-the-shelf technologies and existing military gear to extend communications and command and control to individual troops.
When the Army attached smartphones to rifleman radios and gave them to troops during a 2011 network integration evaluation, soldiers said they were receiving too much information.
“There’s no need for me to have this,” Army Pvt. David Kramlich said then of the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) Handheld. He said troops of his rank don’t need to be overloaded with information that is used to make command decisions.
The JBC-P provides GPS and voice communications. It can be used to plan missions, receive sensor feeds, mark buildings and rooms that have been cleared, communicate via text message and track friendly and enemy forces, much like Raytheon’s AWARE system.
Nett Warrior is a similar system that began years ago as a weighty suite of wearable computers that has since been shrunk down to individual phones and tablets carried in pouches or pockets.
Consensus among soldiers and their leaders at the NIE was that not every soldier needs Nett Warrior and that systems that require soldiers to consult a smartphone in battle are distracting.
With Glass, Google is trying to arrive at how users can access information without having to look down at a separate screen. Test wearers like Clark and his brother, Thermopylae President A.J. Clark, are helping the company figure out how to deliver information through the device and what applications are most useful.
“We need to make sure these applications work in a wearable environment,” A.J. Clark said. “A smartphone is one construct, a laptop is another. Wearable is taking it to a new dimension.”
“Google provides a very strong foundational layer. They invest tons of resources to make these technologies stronger and keep up with the edge of technology,” he added. “We are at the application level and then at the end, the government gets the added value of all that investment through the strata.”