The future is troubled for a military device called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS). It’s a headset, based on Microsoft’s HoloLens, that uses cameras and screens to give soldiers more information about their surroundings. Additionally, it is designed to enhance the fighting ability of individuals and squads, in part by making data collected by military sensors immediately available in the field. But a tool can only be useful as long as soldiers are willing to use it, and a report prepared for the Pentagon suggests that the actual infantry tasked with testing the equipment would rather get rid of the headset than wear it.
That’s the conclusion of a summary report prepared for the Department of Defense by Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Nickolas Guertin (the position oversees all Department of Defense testing and reports specifically to the Secretary of Defense). “More than 80% of those who experienced discomfort had symptoms after less than three hours wearing the custom version of Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses,” the summary reports, according to Bloomberg.
Those symptoms included “headaches, eyestrain and nausea,” reports Bloomberg, which are conditions that can incapacitate people under normal circumstances. In combat, which demands situational awareness, clear vision, and the ability to make clear and effective life-or-death decisions quickly, those afflictions can render soldiers ineffective without an enemy having to fire a shot.
HoloLens, on which IVAS is based, was not primarily designed as a military device, and adapting it to become the IVAS headset has taken years of work and also faced internal pushback. In February 2019, shortly after the contract was publicly announced, some Microsoft workers sent a letter to the company’s CEO objecting to adapting HoloLens into a tool of war.
“The HoloLens application within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield and works by turning warfare into a simulated “video game,” further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of warfare and the reality of bloodshed,” the letter’s authors noted.
While the possibility remains that IVAS could become a functional tool for the battlefield, existing public reports suggest that if IVAS turns battlefields into a video game, it’s a game soldiers won’t want to play.
Adapting technologies from an augmented reality headset for recreational use to military use was always going to be a challenge. In the years that the Army has experimented with IVAS, the limitations of the technology have become apparent, while the promise of the tool is just beginning to materialize.
While the Army report is not public, previous public assessments include some skepticism that the program will deliver on its promise. An Inspector General audit of the Army’s IVAS program, released in April 2022, noted that the program did not define a minimum level at which user acceptance of the technology would meet needs.
“Acquiring IVAS without achieving user acceptance could result in wasting up to $21.88 billion in taxpayer funds to implement a system soldiers may not want to use or use as intended,” the audit stated.
The report emphasizes that it was the lack of a defined acceptance threshold, and not the soldiers’ lack of interest, that led to its conclusion. However, this is a problem that could only be remedied if the Army sets a standard for acceptance by Soldiers, something the audit notes the Army had not yet met at the time of publication.
[Related: Watch the impressive HoloLens 2 Apollo 11 demo that failed during Microsoft’s keynote]
Each year, the Government Accountability Office prepares an assessment of weapons systems for Congress. In its June 2022 report, the GAO noted that “IVAS continues to experience technical challenges with display quality and reliability.” The report went on to note that while the fourth iteration of the device had an improved display, “most of the shortcomings were not corrected and the capability set had yet to demonstrate the ability to serve as combat goggles.”
The IVAS program is based on the use of modern sensors, displays and data integration to improve the way Soldiers understand their immediate environment. In 2021, Microsoft said that IVAS would “allow soldiers to see through smoke and around corners, use holographic images to train, and project 3D terrain maps in their field of vision with the click of a button.”
To understand why the Army is interested in a device like this, it’s helpful to consider its potential advantages. A unique possibility for the technology is not just to project maps into soldiers’ field of vision, but to do so while they are inside a moving, windowless vehicle. That kind of awareness, perhaps of outside terrain filmed and broadcast from transport cameras, could allow soldiers to become familiar with where they are going to fight. Upon exiting the vehicle, knowing the terrain could allow soldiers to take the quickest routes to cover, improving their fighting ability.
IVAS was also intended to function as a night vision, but with an 80 degree field of view, twice as wide as the 40 degrees typical of other night vision goggles. A few other display features, like a compass rose for navigation or a feature that illuminates friendly forces, offer the kinds of combat information management tools that generations of soldiers now expect from first-person shooters. .
Some characteristics that enhance the work of navigation and coordination, according to the summary obtained by Bloomberg.
If headsets can be modified to enhance soldiers’ awareness, rather than burdening soldiers with discomfort while offering information, then IVAS could live up to its promise. Otherwise, the headset could be limited to the historical novelty, a layer of augmented reality for war that was not ready for combat.