On the Battlefield
For decades the military has been providing pilots, tank operators, and other fighters with advanced vision systems that overlay real-time combat information on computer-generated analytical data. Extending these capabilities to the fighter on the ground, however, is proving to be a much harder problem for equipment designers. Since 1992, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has supported research on head-mounted displays and other AR-enabling technologies. And seven years ago, the U.S. Army launched the Land Warrior Program, which hopes to develop wearable computers as standard equipment. After significant delays in the program, Land Warrior brass now expect to field-test G.I.-wearable computer systems by 2003 and to equip all soldiers by 2008.
Almost from its beginnings, Feiner's AR work at Columbia has been funded by grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). An outdoor position- and orientation-sensing AR system like MARS, shrunk down, could be a boon for future Marines in combat. With its own funding from ONR, a group of engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., is leading an effort to replicate and advance Feiner's work in a program known as the Battlefield Augmented Reality System (BARS).
"The war fighter of the future will have to work in an environment where there may be no
signage, and enemy forces are all around," says Lawrence Rosenblum, director of the Virtual Reality Lab at the Naval Research Laboratory (think of recent shots from bombed-out Afghan cities, and you get the picture). "Using augmented reality to empower dismounted war fighters and to coordinate information between them and their command centers could be crucial for survival."
In the AR future, a small team of soldiers airlifted into a remote combat area will encounter terrain that has been mapped in advance. Soldiers won't see just rocks, trees, and buildings, they'll see annotated warnings: "buried mines" or "enemy stores arms in this building." As surveillance reports flow into the command center, new graphics will be broadcast to the AR gear.
A maneuver sketched with a stylus 1,000 miles away on a commander's input tablet would appear in each soldier's view of the war zone, adjusted for position.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.