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Friday, May 25, 2012 11:00:00

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In chaotic combat, information is vital: knowing where you are, where the enemy is, and what the most immediate threats are. But too much information can be a distraction – and in a firefight, it can get you killed.

A perfect balance between information and simplicity is one of the holy grails of modern combat, and the driving force behind one of the most impressive new military technologies. Namely a “smart screen” conveniently displaying the most important battlefield info.

This “augmented reality” system is a key feature of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier™. The game developers grappled with the same info vs. simplicity dilemma that’s present in the real world. “There’s a temptation to make it look cooler by adding more whiz-bang animations and extra info to make it feel like an in-depth system,” says Authenticity Coordinator Travis Getz, “but eventually this all got eliminated or pushed way back to allow the pertinent information top billing.”

Augmented reality began as a heads-up (HUD) system for military aircraft. As warplanes became faster and more complex during World War II, they also grew more dangerous for pilots. Pilots found themselves spending more time scanning their instruments instead of looking around for enemy attackers. So, British scientists developed a system that projected radar onto the fighter’s windscreen. This way, a pilot could keep an eye on his radarscope without putting his head down.

The British HUD advanced rapidly. In the mid-1950s, the island nation installed a version of the device in its new Buccaneer bomber. The Buccaneer HUD presented navigation and targeting data in a simplified, graphical arrangement, and sparked a revolution in military info-management. Soon heads-up displays were standard on all combat aircraft. It wasn’t long before ground troops began demanding their own versions…

In the 1990s, the US Army spent half a billion dollars working on the Land Warrior system, which included a plastic monocle mounted to a soldier’s helmet. With a quick glimpse into the monocle, the wearer could see a computer-generated map marked with locations of friendly and enemy troops and critical information on terrain including possible booby traps and ambush sites.

Land Warrior’s augmented reality had its downsides. For one, the image-generating gear was heavy, and ironically, risked giving an individual soldier too much information when they should be focused on moving and shooting. “I need this like I need a 10th arm,” Army Captain Aaron Miller griped as he tested the system.

The Army cancelled Land Warrior in 2007, but decided to send a handful of prototypes to Iraq, anyway. The troops wasted no time stripping down the system to save weight and complexity. They threw out a peripheral add-on meant to plug into their gunsight. Only team leaders and officers wore the device, allowing low-ranking soldiers to focus on fighting.

The “soldier HUD” was a big hit in Iraq’s complex urban fighting, and so the Army revived the program. In 2011, developers made the system even lighter, and instead of using a monocle, programmed its functions into a hinged, touch-screen smartphone attached to the soldier’s chest armor. This device shows zoomable maps marked with troop locations and can even display photos or videos of suspected enemy positions.

The augmented reality in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is visible at a glance as intuitive graphics are displayed in the player’s field of view. The game developers found inspiration in a wide range of sources, “from augmented vision modes (night vision, thermal, etc.) to annotated camera views that give the user information laid over the image in front of them,” Getz says. “Even jet fighter augmented displays were looked at.”

Whether in the real world with combat smartphones or in the world of Ghost Recon®, battle-winning augmented reality is just a glance away. And with tiny robot helpers, reality-enhanced troops will have an even greater advantage – the subject of our next dispatch!



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