Soldiers were invited to strap on headgear, grab a rifle and fire rounds at opposing forces coming at them on the battlefield and in the air.
The venue wasn’t Afghanistan or some other faraway place, however. It was inside the cavernous Washington convention center here, earlier this month, where the Association of the U.S. Army had set up its massive annual exposition.
Through special optics, the Soldiers could see their real-world surroundings, such as visitors gawking at military hardware in industry booths. But using the magic of augmented reality, they also saw computer-generated holograms of an OPFOR (an opposing force) that they said looked and sounded just as real as the displays and visitors intermingled among them.
Wearing the goggles, some Soldiers said they found it unsettling to see what looked like a life-size helicopter flying around inside the convention center and shooting Hellfire missiles at them.
Pat Garrity, chief engineer of Dismounted Soldier Training Technologies, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, working out of Orlando, Florida, said that the goal is to get augmented reality into the hands of every Soldier in the maneuver force at an affordable price.
Besides price, he said the equipment has to be light enough and comfortable enough so that Soldiers won’t notice they’re wearing it. For instance, the headgear has to weigh less than two pounds, as required by Program Executive Office Soldier. «We want to have Soldiers as unencumbered as possible, training as they’d fight».
Also, it has to generate images real enough for Soldiers to want to use it, with up to 120-degree field of view, which is the best industry has to offer at this time, he said.
And, so far, the feedback of Soldiers testing this equipment has been overwhelmingly positive, he said, noting that AUSA’s Annual Meeting and Exposition this year, October 9-11, was the first public event for this type of augmented reality, with Soldiers visiting the display allowed to test it out.
Augmented reality technology now allows Soldiers to train indoors, outdoors, day or night, Garrity said. They’re no longer tied to brick and mortar training facilities.
And, if it’s daytime, augmented reality can simulate nighttime, he added. And different types of scenarios can be added: desert, mountains, arctic condition, any types of weapons, and so on.
A couple of years ago this equipment, if it existed, would have cost several hundred thousand dollars per Soldier, said John Baker, managing director of Chosen Realities LLC, a company out of Orlando, Florida selected through a small business innovative research contract to push augmented reality forward in cooperation with scientists from the Army Research Laboratory.
Now, it’s gotten much more affordable at less than $5,000 per Soldier, with much more capability than what could have been available just a short time back, he added.
The key to reducing cost, he said, was to use commercial, off-the-shelf products that included the software algorithms, gaming scenarios, sensors and hardware. However, certain weapons that the Army wanted to use but were unavailable were developed in-house, he added.
One of the biggest challenges, he said, was making the experience believable, representing artificial people and machines moving in real time amongst real people, a process known as «dynamic occlusion». To do that required canceling out other pixels representing what’s really out there so the computer-generated images could then be inserted or removed, he continued. «It’s not easy to do that».
Garrity said the program is in the science and technology phase until the end of fiscal year 2020, when, he hopes to have it in at technology readiness level 6 state, which will put it into an operational training environment demonstration and on the road to transition to a program of record.
The requirement for augmented reality, he added, comes from U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Combined Arms Center, which points to synthetic training as a future capability requirement needed to allow Soldiers to train in complex environments that are realistic and too dangerous and expensive to replicate in live settings.
Although the technology is currently being configured for dismounted Soldiers, it could conceivably be transferred to ground vehicle and aviation crews at some point in the future, he noted.