• Military developing command-and-control applications
  • Developers figure out how new tech can solve military problems

If Pokemon Go achieved one thing, it was showing the world that augmented reality technologies are ready for the mainstream. Israel’s military thinks AR is ready for another use: battlefield training.

The Israeli army’s C2 Systems Department recently purchased two HoloLens glasses from Microsoft Corp. The commander of the head programming department, Major Rotem Bashi, intends to develop the technology to improve battlefield strategy and train field personnel. And quickly: He intends for HoloLens to be used on active duty within months.

Microsoft Corp.  HoloLens glasses.
Microsoft Corp. HoloLens glasses.
Source: IDF

“We connect all kinds of technologies and innovative concepts that come from the civilian world and try to adapt them as quickly as possible to military use,” Bashi said.

HoloLens is Microsoft’s bid to lead in the augmented reality market, in which 3D images are blended with the user’s real-life surroundings. Unlike Pokemon Go, or some virtual reality applications for gaming and entertainment, Microsoft’s initial focus with HoloLens is mainly on corporate and academic uses -- from medical schools looking at hologram cadavers to architectural firms tweaking building plans in 3D. The company started shipping orders for the $3,000 developer edition of the goggles in March.

Battlefield Apps

At the army base outside Tel Aviv, a handful of developers in Bashi’s team created a software program in less than a month that allows commanders to manipulate military terrain models and intelligence data to monitor troop positioning from enemy vantage points. Battlefield maps are superimposed on top of the real terrain, streamed in via satellite, to create a blend that can be interacted with via sight, voice and hand gestures. 

The unit is now finding ways to allow HoloLens-wearing medics to operate on wounded with simultaneous instruction from trained surgeons, and combat soldiers to fix equipment malfunctions. It’s far removed from hurling Pokeballs at Pidgeys and Rattatas in Pokemon Go, but based on similar principles.

Besides adapting the HoloLens to military life, Bashi’s unit is working on a product that will give headquarters an online report about a combatant’s physiological state in the field.

Fast Track

Developing applications for HoloLens in under a month is a far cry from the former 24-month gestation period allowed to develop a new application or adapt a technology for military use. Bashi had observed that their lengthy traditional development cycles could mean the technology soldiers were working from would be almost obsolete by the time it was ready for deployment. Now, instead of finished software, they put into use what they call a “minimal viable product” that’s upgraded and improved along the way.

It’s the reverse of what Israel usually does -- decommission elite military technology and transfer knowledge to the private sector, a strategy that helped the country become a global technology hub where companies like Microsoft have put research and development centers. The best and most recent example is Israel’s cyber-security industry, which the prime minister’s office estimates received 20 percent of global investment in that field last year, according to an emailed statement in January.

Bashi said he’s in touch with Microsoft’s HoloLens developers, offering them feedback on the product and making them aware of what his team is working on. Microsoft declined to comment on this or any other military usage of the HoloLens goggles. 

“Since we started shipping Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition in March of this year, we’ve seen an incredible response from developers and stunning innovation in a variety of use cases ranging from airlines training their mechanics and flight crews, to medical students learning anatomy in a new way, to astronauts exploring Mars,” Microsoft said in a statement.

Still Developing

Microsoft conducted a rudimentary demo of HoloLens’s abilities in January 2015, showing how the glasses could be used with Skype to teach a user to install a light switch on the wall of a room.

Bashi’s team is continuing to develop new ways to use the HoloLens platform. Ideas range from streamlining security checks at roadblocks by installing face recognition software, to controlling robots and even drones through gesture. 

There are still issues to iron out: The device works better in a closed room than in sunlight, and communication -- conducted via Skype -- must be secure.

“The bottom line is that the world is going in this direction,” Bashi said. “We want to understand how to develop for this kind of device and figure out how it can impact us as a military.”

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