Microsoft to build $22 billion worth of AR headsets for the US Army
Microsoft has won a 10-year contract to build advanced augmented reality systems for the US Army. A new production contract for the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) will net the company up to US$21.88 billion over 10 years.
This project follows on from a US$480 million prototyping phase starting in 2018, in which Microsoft AR engineers worked in the field with soldiers to develop and test AR headsets designed to give armed forces members next-level situational awareness, as well as extraordinary team command and training capabilities that will make tomorrow's battlefields even more like a lethal video game than ever before.
"The IVAS aggregates multiple technologies into an architecture that allows the Soldier to Fight, Rehearse, and Train using a single platform," reads a US Army press release. "The suite of capabilities leverages existing high-resolution night, thermal, and Soldier-borne sensors integrated into a unified Heads Up Display to provide the improved situational awareness, target engagement, and informed decision-making necessary to achieve overmatch against current and future adversaries. The system also leverages augmented reality and machine learning to enable a life-like mixed reality training environment so the CCF can rehearse before engaging any adversaries."
The best glimpse we've had of the system thus far comes from an ABC News video from December 2020, showing these ruggedized headsets in action. Microsoft HoloLens technology is built into a lightweight, if chunky system that attaches to a soldier's helmet. A large set of goggles places AR lenses over the users eyes, with a range of cameras and sensors across the top, and a cord connecting down to a chest-mounted control unit that's simple enough to operate that it can be done without looking – at least after a bit of practice.
During the prototyping phase, a number of capabilities were tested and tweaked. Soldiers were able to bring up a 3D map overlay of the terrain ahead of them, with key objective points highlighted, and location data, navigation prompts and mission parameters clearly visible. They can also see the locations and movements of their team for co-ordinated actions, and highlight enemy targets for other team members.
Night vision and thermal vision are built in, giving these troops a huge advantage in dark or smoky situations. Special AR cameras mounted in various ways can give a picture-in-picture style overlay; one stuck on the end of a rifle allows soldiers to look around corners just by pointing the barrel of the gun around, potentially even letting them target and shoot from behind cover. Others mounted on the exterior of vehicles could give armored vehicle drivers and gunners unimpeded 360-degree vision.
Training exercises can be turned into literal video games, with AR hologram enemies to fight and interact with, and advanced post-mission replay capabilities for tightening up a squad's performance.
And of course, with data being processed through Microsoft's Azure cloud services (at least in the prototypes, the cloud computing contract has not yet been awarded for the production phase), command officers will be able to view and direct the locations and actions of their teams in incredible ways, from first-person vision to 3D map overlays, allowing extraordinary tactical advantages thanks to real-time multi-angle views.
It's pretty incredible stuff, and soldiers new to the equipment understandably find this massive information onslaught overwhelming to begin with. But after extensive training, one soldier interviewed by the ABC said it eventually becomes "second nature," resulting in the kind of unfair advantage you'd expect a 2020s-era super-soldier to possess.
As well as delivering an advantage to the US Military machine, which reportedly cost US$934 billion to run this year alone, this is an extremely significant deal as far as the consumer sector is concerned because it gives Microsoft's HoloLens system a 22 billion dollar shot in the arm. Elements of this military technology will certainly have relevance to future consumer offerings, and the ability to produce this gear at military-grade standards and huge volumes with mil-tech budgets and a giant beta testing team at the company's disposal will give Microsoft a formidable advantage in the AR space moving forward.
Check out an older IVAS video from the US Army below.