When we first glanced at US Army soldiers testing Microsoft’s modified HoloLens 2 last year, it was still very much like the commercial edition, with some extra sensors attached to it.
Today, the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) prototype, produced under an initial $480 million contract, looks much more like battle-ready technology, with a much larger visor and sensors bundled into a rugged-looking beige housing.
With the US military extending a $21 billion five-year contract (with a possible five-year extension) to Microsoft to produce approximately 120,000 military-grade HoloLens 2, Microsoft has revealed some additional behind-the-scenes details.
The IVAS prototype is the product of two years of close collaboration between supplier and customer, during which Microsoft team members participated in several week-long boot camps and exposed the military to Microsoft̵
“It’s unusual for the government to embark on this journey with us,” Alex Kipman, a Microsoft technical officer and HoloLens inventor, said in a statement. “I give the military infinite credit for their growth mindset. It was the right people with the right attitude at the right time to take the plunge with us.”
The team logged nearly 80,000 hours of soldier feedback by February 2021, including four rounds of testing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with project members connecting through Microsoft Teams. Soldiers mostly tested the headsets in Fort Pickett, Virginia, with additional testing in Puerto Rico and Alaska to account for more extreme climates.
In the end, Microsoft went through and refined dozens of prototypes based on user input. While Microsoft met Army requirements for hardware to withstand battlefield conditions in early prototypes, feedback from soldiers indicated that additional design tweaks were needed. Early sensor placement, for example, hampered soldiers’ ability to aim their guns, and early versions of the device limited their peripheral vision. An early version of a computer package included a dial that, while easy to operate, could easily break as soldiers crawled through rough terrain.
The end result is a convergence of HoloLens AR technology with thermal imaging, sensors, GPS technology and night vision capabilities that will provide soldiers with 3D images and maps, as well as a compass in their field of view.
“Soldiers will be able to practice and train in more realistic scenarios using augmented reality to prepare for whatever they encounter,” said Master Sgt. Marc Krug, a senior recruited consultant who works on the project team. “It is inevitable that IVAS is going to save lives. That is our main focus: to bring our armed men and women back home.”
The 3D maps will allow the US military to plan missions and see the view of the battlefield from the enemy’s point of view in the future. Soldiers will also be able to determine the position of their fellow platoon members using location information sent over a secure network. Paired with their weapon sights, soldiers can use their rifle scope to safely peek around corners while viewing the rifle scope in their IVAS headset.
“Remember to give the soldier immediate situational awareness not only of their surroundings, but also the proximity of mission-critical people, places and things. This will have a profound impact on the safety of soldiers and a marked reduction in friendly fire and other types of incidents,” said David Marra, IVAS program director at Microsoft.
While more than two years sounds like a long time, it’s a sprint compared to other military contracts, which can take six to 10 years to develop a finished product. However, IVAS was co-developed with Microsoft under an “Other Transaction Authority” agreement, allowing flexibility in development and testing. The reviews of the results on this point are glowing.
“Microsoft did a really good job of trying to understand what the government needed and also adding some things that we didn’t know we needed or didn’t even know were possible,” Kugh said.
The average citizen may never get an IVAS edition HoloLens on their head, but they will eventually reap the benefits of Microsoft’s work as a result of what the company has learned about design, development, and iteration through this process.