Augmented Reality Glasses Are Coming To The Battlefield

Marines will control a head-up display with a gun-mounted mouse

Using a pair of augmented reality glasses, a Marine signals intelligence (SIGINT) specialist monitors web traffic while he lies on the ground, his assault rifle trained on a nearby building. Amid the cacophony of cyber-noise in the city — the thousands of simultaneous, harmless Skype sessions, movie streams, and Internet searches — the Marine has zeroed in on a possible insurgent, who is currently flipping through financial data on a spreadsheet. Perhaps the suspect will make a mistake, and open up a mapping application that will show where he’s planning to meet an arms dealer to buy plastique.

The Marine glances at the vital statistics on the heads-up display. The heart rate of his point man has suddenly spiked up to 110. Using a mouse mounted on the handguard of his M-16, the SIGINT specialist silently clicks open the video feed from the point man’s head-mounted camera. A convoy of enemy pickups is headed directly towards the platoon. The Marine pushes out an alert to the rest of the platoon and then switches from dual-display mode to left-only as he raises his weapon to his eye.

This is what the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is working on with its ongoing AR Glasses project; when the project comes to fruition, instead of having his face in a phone or glued to a laptop, the Marine will be able to keep his gaze on the battlefield, increasing what the military calls “situational awareness.” And they can also facilitate commands and information between ordinary soldiers.

The glasses have already been demonstrated at cyber-intelligence exercises in November, January, and March. Modified versions of X-6 prototypes made by the San Francisco-based Osterhout Design Group (ODG), the ONR glasses allow SIGINT soldiers to monitor a variety of enemy waveforms, indicating Internet traffic, 2G/SMS, VHF/push-to-talk radio systems, and satellite communications.

The tool emerged out of brainstorming between Marine modeling and simulation expert Major Christian Fitzpatrick and a signals intelligence instructor and staff sergeant named Nicholas Lannan. Lannan, who served two tours in Afghanistan, found he couldn’t monitor his Android device and hold a weapon at the same time.

“He was patrolling with an infantry unit, and he used to stick out like a sore thumb,” says Fitzpatrick. “He had the Android device, plus different antenna systems coming out of his backpack. So we talked about it, and if he had a heads-up display, he could hold a weapons system, keep his head about him, and still get some streaming data.”

Having eyes glued to a screen can cause a SIGINT Marine not to see real-world objects that might be relevant. For example, an amplitude decrease in the signal getting tracked as the Marine moves around a building may be due to interference by the metal fire escape above his head, not because he’s moving away from the target.

Still, Fitzpatrick says the 1.5-GHz dual-core glasses are still several years from readiness for the field, mainly due to the physical rigors of battle. The glasses aren’t totally waterproof, can be hard to read when the Marine moves between bright sunlight and the shade of a building, and may not survive getting roughly handled.

“For a plainclothes guy surveying an environment, they would be OK. But in a military environment, where they might get stepped on or dropped, and they’re prototypes that cost roughly $20,000 apiece?” says Fitzpatrick. “When we talk to MARSOC (Marine Corps Special Operations Command), they’re very interested in the spectrum data [from the glasses]. But they said ‘If someone’s shooting at me, the first thing I’m doing is ripping these off and tossing them!’

Pete Jameson, chief operating officer at ODG, points out that the company’s R-6 glasses, commercially available for just under $5,000, have an ambient light sensor and swappable photochromic shields for handling glare.

“The glasses had to pass military spec standards,” says Jameson. “They’re pretty robust. In real-life situations, we have very few returns.”

Still, Fitzpatrick does not want to overpromise, particularly given the pickiness of his constituency.

“I like to be an early adopter,” says Fitzpatrick. “But that’s not the way at D.O.D. (Department of Defense), where we like to be extremely comfortable with our gear.”

Part of getting “comfortable” with the gear was testing out the AR glasses in a simulated attack called “Exercise Bold Alligator,” involving 11,000 Marines in ships floating off the coast of North Carolina and the urban terrain training facility at Camp Lejeune. An MIT computer program called Lincoln Adaptable Real-time Information Assurance Testbed (LARIAT), simulated the electronic activity of thousands of innocent civilians as well as a criminal network working to buy a large weapons system to use on the ships. Amidst all of the electronic buzz, SIGINT Marines had to suss out details of the rapidly-unfolding plot.

Fitzpatrick says the particular point of this exercise was for Marines to practice analyzing different enemy electronic tactics. In the heat of battle, insurgents may switch between a variety of modes of communications.

“What if they’re in a position where[the enemy] can’t get to their Gmail accounts? What is the next form of communication? Do they use their phones to send a text– do they use Twitter? ” says Fitzpatrick. “We’re trying to build scenarios so when [Marines] are actually forward-deployed, it’s not the first time they’re overwhelmed with a number of different signal sets and a sophisticated enemy.”

The public isn’t ready for computerized glasses for everyday wear.

“It looks like something your grand-dad might wear,” says Fitzpatrick. The battery (which lasts 4-6 hours) sits above the top of the lenses, giving the 4.5-ounce glasses a bulky look.

ODG’s Jameson says that the backlash against the form factor of Google Glass shows that the public is not ready for computerized glasses for everyday wear.

“You’d use the R-6 for a particular job — not for 24-hours-a-day activity,” says Jameson. He thinks people will be more receptive to wearables incorporated into a core job function. “There’s a big future in the corporate and industrial world. That’s where it’ll start, and things will go from there.”

And if the AR glasses make intelligence collection as efficient as hoped, Marines won’t be worried about looking a little silly.