Pentagon Eyeing More Advanced Virtual, Augmented Reality Headwear

By Jon Harper

Photo-illustration: Defense Dept. / iStock

Technology improvements driven by the commercial sector are expected to yield virtual and augmented reality goggles that solve many of the problems associated with the headsets being used by the U.S. military today, experts say.

Virtual reality, or VR, immerses users in a computer generated environment, such as video gaming. Augmented reality, or AR, transposes data or other digitally created images on top of a real-world field of view, such as the yellow first-down marker or the orange strike zone box that TV viewers see when watching football or baseball games.

VR and AR headgear can improve the way troops train for high-end fights against advanced adversaries by providing digitally created enemy forces or other environmental factors that they might encounter in a real battle, officials have noted.

“The commercial sector is where all the gamers are going to be using that stuff too,” said Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at market analysis firm Frost & Sullivan. “They’re going to be changing and updating and upgrading to keep pace with their competitors in that market, and that’s going to increase the capability for the users on the defense end. So defense is going to end up winning from that commercial competition because they’re going to get better capabilities for training.”

One example is the Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program, which aims to make aviator training more efficient and push undergraduates through the pipeline faster. The use of virtual reality headsets gives students more opportunities to hone their skills.

In the traditional pilot training construct, students start with some paper publications or an iPad that has their training documents on it, said Lt. Col. Robert Knapp, operations officer at Air Force Education and Training Command Detachment 24.

“They go from that into an extremely expensive traditional simulator where they can do the full range of flight maneuvers,” he said. “The problem with those expensive sims is there’s only a handful of them and they’re constrained on the number of times a student can get into them.”

However, students participating in the Pilot Training Next initiative can sit in a chair and strap on a commercial device such as the HTC VIVE Pro and practice maneuvers.

VR headsets give the Air Force the opportunity to provide airmen with much more access to simulation technology.

“We can fill in the gaps between reading something in a book or an iPad and doing a high fidelity simulator with some cheaper commercially available tools that are out there,” Knapp said.

But today’s headsets have some drawbacks, he noted.

“When you start going to the super high resolution goggles, the field of view gets narrower,” he explained. “To get a wider field of view you’re [going] to a lower resolution goggle.

“But ideally the technology work will continue to advance and we’ll have a super wide field of view with super high resolution and very advanced frame rates so there’s no jitteriness,” he added. “We’re just not there yet.”

However, at the rate that technology is progressing in the gaming industry, the Air Force might have the types of VR headsets it wants in the not too distant future.

“We’re very excited in the next couple of years about where this is going, because I do think we’re not far away from headsets that are incredibly high fidelity to where anybody putting on the headset will be” immersed in a virtual environment that looks much more like the real world, said Maj. Eric Jones, assistant director of operations at AETC.

Phil Perey, head of technology at CAE’s defense and security business, said new headsets that are coming to market have better fidelity than legacy systems. CAE incorporates virtual and augmented reality headsets into the training solutions it provides to military customers, including for rear aircraft crews.

The new Varjo XR-1 has sharp enough resolution that users can clearly read instruments panels, a capability that was lacking in older systems, he noted.

Perey anticipates that VR and AR headset technology will continue to evolve.

“There’s going to be a desire to put these helmet-mounted displays on a diet in terms of physical weight,” he said. However, that’s not the only need.

“They may shrink the existing capabilities with the existing field of view, but as they try to bring the field of view to something that’s bigger, they’re going to be forced to go a bit wide,” he said. “We’ll see the devices lighten up, but we may actually see them physically grow to encompass a larger instantaneous horizontal field of view.”

Perey said he’s been able to try some of the next-generation helmets that will be released into the market next year, and has been impressed both with how big some of them are and how light they are. One of them was “almost feather light,” he said.

Reducing the weight of the systems could reduce the strain and discomfort that users experience.

“There’s some promising manufacturing technologies that will allow these devices to become a lot lighter,” Perey said. “That’s going to be an important factor for the people putting these on and wearing them for hours on end.”

New batteries and smaller computers could also help reduce the size and bulk of headset technology.

Mark Valentine, director of the Army team at Microsoft, said there is a focus on improving battery technology associated with the headgear. Improvements in material science are yielding smaller form factors and longer battery life, he noted.

“The search for battery power and improving battery efficiency … [is] one of the key technology pieces right now,” he said.

Microsoft is providing a modified version of its HoloLens2 augmented reality headsets to the Army for the Integrated Visual Augmentation System program, which includes a heads-up display. The service intends to use the devices for training purposes and to provide improved situational awareness and data access to troops on the battlefield.

The HoloLens system has see-through lenses, Valentine noted.

“I can see the real world, but we can now take data and information and display that in the form of 3D holograms that we can lock into your environment,” he said. “HoloLens is essentially a Windows 10 computer that you wear on your face, but the display methodology is not a screen. It’s now a mixed-reality portal to the real world.”

Valentine declined to discuss the IVAS program specifically, but noted that Microsoft sees a variety of potential uses for the HoloLens technology, including preparation for combat.

“Right now, if I’m an Army soldier and I want to train for seizing a building, I get some opposing forces, I get some pop-up targets and things like that, and I rush into the building with real weapons and shoot,” he said. But in a mixed reality world, holograms could be used to simulate enemy forces.

The headsets could also be used to help equipment maintainers.

“We can get to the point where I can look at the toolbox, the device itself can do [artificial intelligence] recognition at the edge, … look into the toolbox and identify the tool that I need for the next step in the repair and highlight that tool for me,” he explained. “I pick that tool up, look at the airplane, and now the next step in the checklist for that repair is holographically displayed.”

Valentine noted the HoloLens 2 has a smaller form factor and increased field of view compared with the previous iteration of the system. The company also moved the computational portions out of the front of the device and onto a pad in the back so that it’s more comfortable for wearers.

Another issue that has plagued VR and AR headsets is latency between user actions and corresponding changes in the simulated environment. It not only reduces the effectiveness of simulations, but it can also lead to motion sickness, noted retired Rear Adm. James Robb, president of the National Training and Simulation Association. NTSA is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

However, emerging 5G wireless technology could be a gamechanger in this regard, Robb said. 5G networks are expected to be up to 20 times as fast as 4G.

“5G is supposed to have very little latency,” he said. “Anytime you have to port the simulation from a server to a headset, you’re going to have some delay in the transmission time. And so anytime you can streamline the architectures, the wireless architectures to go fairly directly to a very high speed computer, you’re going to cut down on that” problem.

Blades said that type of technology is the wave of the future.

“The movement is going to be toward making everything wireless … where there’s a lot of computing power in the glasses themselves,” he said. “We’ve got 5G coming down the line. So I’m sure they’re going to … have almost negligible latency between any headset and what it’s connected to, whether it’s a PC or another headset or whatever.”

The Pentagon is about to kick off a 5G initiative which includes integrating the technology into mission planning and training in virtual and live environments on training ranges.

Robb also expects next-generation headsets to have greater data collection capabilities for training scenarios, and to utilize AI.

“That’s a case where a machine is going to be doing a lot of this work in terms of figuring out how you’re doing and helping you to improve your performance. And that could be anything from helping you with decision options, helping you with information, or helping you pull the right visualizations,” he said. “The smarter the support stuff gets, the more benefit the [user] gets out of it.”

Matthew Clarke, director of the simulation and training technology center at Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, said he’s not too worried about improving VR technology.

“Industry will just take that and run with it because that’s all about the gaming community and the gaming business is growing,” he said during a recent meeting with reporters.
Augmented reality is a greater concern, he noted.

“That’s because you are trying to integrate the live and the virtual world, and there are significant challenges in that,” he explained. “For instance, if you don’t have your alignment of those two worlds absolute, then … you’re off a lot as you go down range, and we can’t have that.

“So the specific challenges that I’m going after in AR … is that alignment, it’s that tracking, it’s that dynamic occlusion piece,” he added.

The Army would like to have a single piece of kit that could transition from AR to VR, so the service could “get a twofer out of that,” he noted.

It also wants goggles with more capable passive sensors attached to them.

“The Army hates active type of sensors because the enemy can see them,” he said. “We want passive type of sensors. The problem today with passive sensors is you don’t get the distance, you don’t get the [range] capability … that we require to do unit training.”

But Clarke also envisions a world where AR technology looks completely different than it does today.

“Instead of having goggles, why don’t we go with some augmented reality contact lenses?” he said. “To me, that’s the future down the road — get rid of the processing, turn the [energy generated by the human] body into the power source so you don’t have to carry an external battery.”

Blades said in the future, advances in AR technology might not require users to don any sort of headwear for certain tasks.

“A lot of these things … show a 3D representation of something,” he noted. “What if that’s just generated by some sort of video that makes a three-dimensional fixture in front of you that you don’t need glasses for? That’s the interesting thing about the augmented reality is some of those applications, you may not even need glasses for it.”

Topics: Training and Simulation

Comments (2)

Re: Pentagon Eyeing More Advanced Virtual, Augmented Reality Headwear

Use enhanced heardgear to scan envitonment for threats. Gas, noise movement, light, pressure, aitcraft, etc.

Ron wilson at 12:19 PM
Re: Pentagon Eyeing More Advanced Virtual, Augmented Reality Headwear

Businesses can benefit highly from augmented reality services to boost their marketing campaigns and engage their customers.

Tim Brunori at 1:52 PM
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