Why the Army hates AR goggles

The IVAS system in January, 2021.

The IVAS system in January, 2021. US Army / Courtney Bacon

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 displays to offer soldiers more information about their environment. Plus it’s designed to enhance the ability of individuals and squads to fight, in part by making data collected by military sensors immediately available in the field. But a tool can only be useful so long as soldiers are willing to use it, and a report prepared for the Pentagon suggests that the actual infantry tasked with trying out the equipment would rather ditch the headsets than use them.

That’s the conclusion of a summary of the report prepared for the Department of Defense, by director of Operational Test and Evaluation Nickolas Guertin (the position oversees all DoD testing and specifically reports to the Secretary of Defense). “More than 80% of those who experienced discomfort had symptoms after less than three hours using the customized version of Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles,” the summary reports, according to Bloomberg.

Those symptoms included “headaches, eyestrain and nausea,” reports Bloomberg, which are conditions that can incapacitate people in normal circumstances. In combat, which demands situational awareness, clear eyesight, and an ability to rapidly make clear and effective life-or-death decisions, those afflictions can render soldiers ineffective without a foe ever having to fire a shot.

HoloLens, on which IVAS is based, was not designed primarily as a military device, and adapting it to become the IVAS headset has taken years of work and faced internal pushback, too. In February 2019, shortly after the contract was announced publicly, some Microsoft workers sent a letter to the company’s CEO objecting to the adaptation of HoloLens into a tool of war.

“The application of HoloLens 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 war and the reality of bloodshed,” the letter writers noted.

While the possibility persists that IVAS will become a functional, battlefield tool, existing public reports suggest that if IVAS turns battlefields into a video game, it’s a game soldiers do not want to play. 

Adapting technologies from a recreational augmented reality headset 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 been made readily apparent, while the promise of the tool is only starting to be realized. 

Heads up

While the Army’s report is not public, other earlier assessments that are public include some skepticism that the program will deliver its promise. An Inspector General audit of the Army’s IVAS program, released April 2022, noted that the program failed to define a floor level at which user acceptance of the technology would meet needs. 

“Procuring IVAS without attaining user acceptance could result in wasting up to $21.88 billion in taxpayer funds to field a system that Soldiers may not want to use or use as intended,” declared the audit. 

The report emphasizes that it was the lack of a defined acceptance threshold, and not a lack of interest by soldiers, that led to its conclusion. Yet this is a problem that could only be remedied by the Army setting a standard for acceptance by soldiers, which the audit notes that at the time of publication the Army still had not done.

[Related: Watch the impressive HoloLens 2 Apollo 11 demo that failed during Microsoft’s keynote]

Every year, the Government Accountability Office prepares an assessment of weapon 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 deficiencies were not corrected and the capability set had yet to demonstrate the capability to serve as a combat goggle.”

Augmented reality 

The IVAS program is premised on employing modern sensors, displays, and data integration to enhance how soldiers understand their immediate environment. In 2021, Microsoft said IVAS would “allow soldiers to see through smoke and around corners, use holographic imagery for training and have 3D terrain maps projected onto their field of vision at the click of a button.”

To understand why the Army is interested in a device like this, it helps to consider its potential advantages. One unique possibility for the technology is not just projecting maps in soldiers’ field of view, but doing so while they are inside a moving vehicle, without windows. That kind of awareness, perhaps of the outside terrain as filmed and transmitted from a transport’s cameras, could let soldiers familiarize themselves with where they are going to fight. When exiting the vehicle, knowing the terrain already could let soldiers take the fastest routes into cover, enhancing their ability to fight.

IVAS was also intended to work as night vision, but with an 80 degree field of vision, twice as wide as the typical 40 degrees of other night vision goggles. Some other display features, like a compass rose for navigation, or a feature illuminating friendly forces, offer the kinds of combat information management tools that generations of soldiers now have expected from first-person shooter games.

Some features that enhance navigation and coordination work, according to the summary obtained by Bloomberg. 

If the headset can be modified to enhance soldier awareness, instead of burdening soldiers with discomfort while offering information, then IVAS might be able to live up to its promise. If not, the headset could be confined to historical novelty, an augmented reality layer for war that wasn’t ready for combat.