Welcome to the V-Army

Posted: February 2, 2012 in Military games, Serious games, Virtual reality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

As any William Gibson fan will tell you, it was only a matter of time.

Just yesterday, the Department of Defense announced that it’s developing virtual reality contact lenses to enhance the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) abilities of soldiers on the battlefield. The lenses, which fit over the eye exactly like standard contact lenses, contain miniature, full-color displays, on which digital images can be directly projected. Unlike a laptop, PDA or other handheld device, which places a screen between the user and his or her environment, wearers could watch these images and still have an unobstructed view of their surroundings, allowing them to react to events on the ground while receiving potentially critical intel through the lenses. According to DARPA, who’s working with Innovega iOptiks to create the lenses, they would

operate hands-free, provide similar or better magnification on-demand, while providing FOV [field-of-view] equal to that of the unaided eye.”

They would also cost less than existing equipment used for ISR activities, and would provide soldiers with a freedom of movement not possible with binoculars, night-vision goggles, and other traditional ISR gear. There’s an image of the lenses here.

Of course, this is hardly the U.S. military’s first foray into the realm of VR technology. In 2008, the U.S. Air Force built a simulated base in Second Life; in 2010, the Army posted details for a complex virtual world similar to Second Life’s massively multiplayer environment, and began courting a systems integrator to build it (InformationWeek reported the article here).

2011, though, saw a flurry of activity, with both the Army and the Navy exploring the potential of virtual worlds to train their personnel for a variety of battle exercises, from firing torpedoes to preparing for encounters with IEDs and other explosive devices—right down to the nature and damage of an explosion, including haptic (tactile) feedback systems that would simulate being hit with debris.

But what does this all mean, really? What are the larger implications?

Last year, I spoke with Rob Lindeman, a game design and technology professor in Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Computer Science, and I asked him how far VR technology could go. Would it ever be possible to create a fully-immersive virtual world? Here’s what he had to say:

I think the answer is yes, and I think it’s going to be more Matrix-like than anything else. What I’ve found is that technology seems to be moving closer to the brain and bypassing more and more systems. So for instance there are these displays that draw images on the retina, so instead of showing you a display, it actually draws directly on your retina. So it bypasses the optics and it’s perfect resolution. There’s no pixelation, there’s actually no display, it’s literally drawing on it, so you have perfect resolution. And that’s one step closer to the brain. At some point, we’ll just be tapping into the optic nerve, tapping into the auditory nerve and just stimulating… sending nerve impulses to the brain. And then at some point we’ll start just tapping right into the area of the brain that we know and can tap into. And I think that’ll happen. I don’t know when it will happen. I don’t know what the motivation will be for it to happen, but I think it will happen.”

What seemed far-fetched and confined to the realms of science fiction less than 30 years ago is all but upon us. In another 30 years, we may be able to live much of our lives in a completely virtual world that’s indistinguishable from reality. Whether this turns out to be a boon or a curse will debated long after its inauguration. We can turn away in fear or face the future and embrace the possibilities. However, the history of technological progress has taught us that there’s no turning back: Once we have the means to create something, it’s a virtual certainty that we will. How we use it is up to us.

To read more about virtual reality contact lenses, click here.

This article talks about some of the next generation training tools being investigated by the DOD.

Here’s another article regarding the DOD and virtual worlds.

A similar article regarding the U.S. Navy’s virtual reality exploration is here.

The DOD has a special report with several articles about military virtual worlds here.

  1. Great article and great links to explore. My, oh my… things are going to get stranger.

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