Building sand tables has always been an infantryman's chore, but in a few years the job may be taken over by Microsoft.
That's what Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, the commander of Program Executive Office Soldier, said recently, describing how the Microsoft-based Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) will allow infantrymen to view 3D models of an attack objective through a sophisticated set of augmented reality glasses.
Soldiers have always built terrain models, or sand tables, using just about anything handy -- Meals Ready to Eat boxes, cigarette packs, foam cups, ammo cans and engineer tape. Now the team testing IVAS has figured out how to do it with video feed from tiny drones the Army recently began fielding in May.
Army modernization officials used the pocket-sized drones, which are part of the Soldier Borne Sensor program, to take video footage of a military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) training complex. Then they viewed the footage in IVAS, Potts said.
"They flew [the drones] over the MOUT site; [they] downloaded its data; it processed an algorithm; and inside an IVAS suddenly you've got a 3-D holographic image of that entire MOUT site. And now you can do a complete battle drill without building a sand table," Potts recently told Military.com. "You can walk around it. You can look down the streets."
The Army is preparing to put IVAS through its third Soldier Touch Point (STP) evaluation in July in the race begin fielding in 2021. The experimental high-tech glasses are designed equip close-combat soldiers with a heads-up display that allows them to view tactical maps as well as their weapon-sight reticle.
The Army just finished its second STP evaluation this fall at Fort Pickett, Virginia. So far, program officials have offered very broad descriptions of the Microsoft's HoloLens technology, but details are slowly emerging.
If successful, IVAS will likely replace bulky night vision goggles that have to be mounted on special helmet brackets.
"IVAS is comfortable to wear and will take a lot of pressure off your head and your neck for long-term missions," Potts said, describing how engineers working with industry have developed extremely small thermal and low-light sensors that will be built into IVAS glasses.
"We probably have the very best small-form factor thermal sensors that are going to go into the IVAS," he said. "They will have a low-light sensor, and they will have a thermal sensor."
Program officials are also working with short-wave infrared for its "depth-sensitive capabilities that we wouldn't otherwise have."
"If I want to scan a room, I need a depth-sensing capability; what commercial products use is active-depth sensing, but it emits a signal that other people see," Potts said. "We are not to put a signal on a soldier that gets emitted to where ... they are lit up like a lollipop."
IVAS is being designed to allow soldiers to use in synthetic training scenarios so soldiers can practice room-clearing and other tactical missions using realistic gaming technology.
The shortwave infrared will allow soldiers to scan the inside of any room and use it as a training area only they can see, Potts said.
"Now I can take a building that's out in the training area and I can go in and scan it; then I can put avatars in there, so I get this presence of life. And then I can go in and clear the building, and I am clearing it against an enemy that no one in the world can see but me," Potts said.
In combat, soldiers will be able to use IVAS to view tactical information by simply glancing around the edges of the glasses, Potts said.
Early on, the tactical data was displayed directly in front of soldiers' eyes.
"Soldiers said 'get that out from in front of my face. In a combat situation I don't need stuff flying across here,'" Potts said.
"Now all you've got to do is look up -- when I look up with my eyes, I see rings. And the rings show me where all my teammates are. And I also have heading [data] so it tells me exactly where I am heading ... and I look down and its shows me concentric rings that show me distance," Potts said.
"There is a messaging feature; I can just look over to the side and it's right there, but I can come back to center and I can clear everything out."
There is still more work to be done on IVAS, including making it rugged enough to stand up to company-level field tests during the Soldier Touch Point evaluation in July and a final STP in 2021.
"I am a full believer we are going to deliver," Potts said. "We will do it."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.