Needless to say, Call of Duty is different from real combat. While there are the obvious differences, one of the more subtle discrepancies is the amount of information provided to game players. Soldiers do not have constant access to information – maps, health scores, enemy location – like they do in the video games. Rather, they must stop what they are doing and reference a paper map or electronic tablet, putting them in a precarious situation. To remedy this issue, the Army has attempted to develop a heads-up display (HUD) that can provide critical information to a soldier within their field of view. Over three decades, numerous development efforts have failed due to technical and programmatic challenges. However, the latest attempt by Microsoft MSFT -0.4% will soon provide this much-needed capability to soldiers.
By the end of 2021, the Army will have fielded up to 40,000 Integrated Visual Augmentation Systems (IVAS). This Microsoft device is expected to provide all of the information that Call of Duty provides and much more. However, the true accomplishment is not the technical hurdles associated with developing this HUD. Rather, it is the rapid process that the Army used to develop and field this system.
At its core, the IVAS is an Augmented Reality system, which overlay translucent graphics onto a wearer’s field of view. In doing so, the IVAS can provide soldiers with the information that they need in combat while still allowing them to keep their “head on a swivel.” The IVAS is not the Army’s first attempt at providing soldiers with a HUD. The largest effort was part of the Land Warrior system in the 1990s. The head-mounted display was widely panned for being too heavy, unhelpful, constraining, and difficult to use. The entire project was eventually cancelled, with the HUD being replaced by a chest-mounted tablet. Several other projects have attempted to develop HUDs for the Army, but they ran into similar challenges.
The success of the IVAS is that it is built upon the Microsoft Hololens platform, which has achieved a good amount of commercial success. Microsoft launched the original Hololens in 2016, and the system was considered very user friendly and straightforward. The main issues with the Hololens were related to its limited field of view, such that graphics would not appear in the user’s periphery. Additionally, many users complained about eye fatigue or dizziness if worn for too long. Microsoft recently resolved many of these issues with the Hololens 2.
However, the IVAS is far from a simple Hololens spin-off. Rather, Microsoft opted to do a four-iteration spiral development process to develop the IVAS. Each iteration adds new capabilities and undergoes limited user tests, with feedback being integrated into the subsequent iteration. The first iteration was primarily a Hololens with new software that integrated with other Army systems. The third iteration is currently undergoing tests, with the fourth iteration expected in 2021, prior to the system’s fielding. The final version will include an array of combat capabilities including thermal and night vision sensors, threat detection, and target acquisition aids. The IVAS will also include several revolutionary features such as language translation tools and 3D mapping.
This process is not following the rather complex and convoluted process traditionally used by the Army for developing and acquiring systems. The traditional processes work well for fighter planes and tanks; however, it fared poorly when dealing with fields that are much more dynamic, such as electronics. By the time that the Army can field an electronic system, it is often clunkier and less capable than similar devices that can be procured from Alibaba.com. The novel process used for the IVAS development shows that the Army is serious about modernizing. By moving away from the traditional acquisition practices, they have found a way to move at the speed of technology.
When the Army fields the IVAS late next year, soldiers will get a new cutting-edge technology that will provide them access to information on the battlefield. The system itself is impressive and will change modern combat. But even more impressive is how rapidly the Army managed to develop and field this system. The Army seems to have finally cracked the code on how to get cutting-edge technology onto the battlefield before it becomes obsolete.