At the May 18 second biennial Pentagon Lab Day in Washington DC, the US Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center and Army Research Lab demonstrated a prototype technology ripped straight from first-person shooter computer games - an "augmented reality" display that helps soldiers tap into sensors and other data.
Dubbed Tactical Augmented Reality (TAR), the technology is the latest developed in the US Army's ongoing effort to create greater networks between soldiers, and imbue them with "situational awareness" on battlefields — constant cognisance of where they, their allies and adversaries are.
CERDEC, ARL, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have long-toiled to make augmented reality work effectively on the battlefield, most notably developing the Heads Up Navigation, Tracking and Reporting (HUNTR) system. The limitations of wearable tech have long been a significant barrier to greater development, however — while the army has tried to equip soldiers since the late 1980s, such resources are still years, if not decades, away from reaching theaters of war.
The military's first attempt was "Land Warrior" — it sprang out of a technology program in 1989, Soldier Integrated Protective Ensemble, which showed enhanced sensors and communications could significantly boost small infantry units' combat capabilities.
The concepts behind Land Warrior didn't take concrete form until 2000, when they became part of the army's Future Combat Systems program — Land Warrior was given to defense firm Raytheon to develop.
The end result was a proposed integrated computer system as part of every soldier's kit, as well as a helmet-mounted display, featuring communications and navigation data.
In theory, the system allowed commanders to track where troops were in real-time — however, the system didn't offer soldiers information on their local environments, and was plagued by severe issues, the most prominent being the hefty weight of the system's batteries, computing power, radios, and TV screen.
Given basic infantryman combat gear already weighed 80 pounds by itself, and Land Warrior added a further 40 pounds to the load, soldiers simply couldn't take the strain. It was akin to carrying a nigh-on 10 stone child around in perpetuity.