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Augmented Reality: Opportunities for Naval Forces

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

The previous year, 2016 had been a seminal year for Augmented Reality (AR). It witnessed the launch of Pokemon Go, a free-to-play, location-based AR game developed by Niantic for iOS and Android devices. The activity involved a Pokémon appearing on Google Maps and then allowing the gamers to use their browsers to search for the exotic monsters located at real-world positions and physically reaching up to them and then hit an icon on screen, and be rewarded with items and experience points.

What began as an ‘April Fools’ joke, the app-based game caught the attention of millions of young and old gaming enthusiasts across the globe who competed with each other in the streets and public places such as parks, zoos, monuments, clock towers, etc. to ‘capture, train and battle’ titular creatures (pocket monsters) or Pokémon characters’ through their mobile phones and devices to fight other creatures within the game. For instance, ghost-type Pokémon appeared in graveyards and water-type creatures near lakes and rivers, and even in military establishments forcing the US military’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, issuing a warning not to ‘chase Pokémon into controlled or restricted areas, office buildings, or homes on base’ and the Pentagon even promulgated rules for playing Pokemon Go in and around its premises.

The above may sound like an innocuous entertainment, but it showcased that it is possible to overlay virtual objects on the real-world places thus augmenting it into a new reality. However, it is useful to mention that AR systems are not new, have seen many applications for specific systems and were naturally exclusive and therefore very expensive. What is perhaps significant about the recent applications of AR is its ready availability and low-costs which encouraged it to attract general public and enter the consumer market place with a bang.

Three Realities

Before attempting to understand the role of AR for military purposes, it is useful to define a few concepts relating to Reality. Virtual Reality (VR) “is an artificial, computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real-life environment or situation. It immerses the user by making them feel like they are experiencing the simulated reality firsthand, primarily by stimulating their vision and hearing” and produces environment in which the users interact with virtual content. The digital content merges with the user’s perceptual experience by creating 2D and 3D images in the field of view. In essence, the participant-observer is totally immersed in, and able to interact with, a completely synthetic world.

Unlike VR, AR “layers computer-generated enhancements atop an existing reality in order to make it more meaningful through the ability to interact with it. AR is developed into apps and used on mobile devices to blend digital components into the real world in such a way that they enhance one another”. It achieves this by combining the virtual with the real and is used on small hand held devices with cameras.

VR and AR are two sides of the same coin; the former brings the interaction into the 3D virtual world and the latter provides virtual objects into the real world. In recent times, the boundaries with VR and AR have seen some blurring to emerge as ‘Mediated or Mixed’ Reality or ‘Hybrid Reality’.

Proliferation of VR and AR

There is widespread proliferation of VR and AR systems and devices and newer varieties of headset and products are entering the market to satiate the growing appetite of the users as also the curiosity of consumers who seek newer products to add to excitement in gaming. It is believed that AR would be a regular feature of our daily lives and work environments and will affect the behaviors and habits of people who will quickly assimilate AR systems thus facilitating intense interaction between them and their environments.

According to a report by Digi-Capital, the combined VR and AR market could be nearly US$120 billion worth by 2020. It is expected that prices of VR/AR devices will fall in the coming years making them cheaper, thus increasing the consumer base. Further, organizations as varied as universities, think tanks, hotels and leisure can be expected to use AR and VR for tutorials, laboratory demos, training, tours, communication, product development, etc.

Navies Take Note of AR

The defence sector has closely watched the usage and growth of VR/AR devices and the military is keenly exploring vistas for its usage in battle space management, training on military equipment; logistics supply chains; and maintenance of machinery. A variety of wearable devices and wrist mounted gadgetry are also beginning to find preference among the military.

As far as the navies are concerned, AR is a recent phenomenon and still a concept for most. The United States Navy (USN) has taken the lead and begun to carry out trials of an AR enabled Unified Gunnery System Augmented Reality (GunnAR) system in which a weapons officer will transfer system data right into a sailor’s eyes. The software will “overlay graphics to identify a target’s nature and position while issuing written orders like fire and cease fire.” This will also help ‘resolve the communications problems that arise in battle’. The trials for this system will be held on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during the annual Trident Warrior exercise which is specifically tailored for carrying out real-time simulated operations using new hardware technology and facilitate crew to engage with the latest software and cyber technology.

Likewise, major transformations are underway in the helmets worn by the pilots of aircraft. The Heads-Up-Displays (HUD) in which digital data is presented to the user’s field-of-view (FOV) allowing the pilot to fly the aircraft efficiently as compared to relying on conventional flight instruments was perhaps the first to be used by the aviation arm. This has now been replaced by the Head-Mounted-Displays (HMD) which includes helmets with visors, various glasses, as well as contact lenses thus allowing the pilot to move his head without losing sight of AR content as also move from beyond cockpits out into the real-world. Similarly, AR HUDs have also been developed for watercraft and the maritime environment.

Today there are a variety of AR smart-glasses and AR contact lenses available in the market and include the Microsoft – HoloLens, Sony – Smart Eyeglass, Google – Glass, Google Contact Lenses, Recon Instruments, Optivent - Ora-1. Vuzix - M100 Smart Glasses, to name a few.

AR Enabled Situational Awareness

The role of AR for Situational Awareness (SA) is fast gathering momentum. For instance, a combatant can continuously register information from the surroundings and combining it with virtual information provided by various battlefield management and intelligence systems can result in information superiority and present a common operating picture (COP) to tactical and operational commanders. Its usage in covet operations and amphibious landing is noteworthy.

Ship Navigation

The use of AR for ship navigation merits attention. A variety of onboard sensors such as gyroscopes, GPS, digital cameras, radars and binoculars provide varying levels of accuracy and precision to the ship controllers. These provide own vessel information and these are immersed into the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), a geographic information system used for nautical navigation that is as an alternative to paper nautical charts. Also, GPS enabled map services provided by Google and Apple on most smartphones are excellent AR aids for navigation. The AR can facilitate integration of the international colregs rules which will not only warn the officer of the watch that there is a danger as also tell the officer what to do. Also, information on other vessels based on call sign, MMSI number, radar and AIS input can be presented. Similarly, the AR system can monitor the draft of the vessel and provide warnings when entering insufficient depth. These systems combined are the primary systems of the augmented reality system.

Machinery Maintenance

One of the perils of long voyages is engine/auxiliary failures at sea. Further, the navies across the globe face crew shortages and as far as machinery issues are concerned, shortfall in the number of trained engineers can affect the operational efficiency of any platform necessitating innovative ideas and solutions to overcome the gaps. It is now possible to use remote guidance by using smart glasses, mobile devices or tablets and engineer skills can be ‘augmented’ as more qualified technicians provide expertise from any location in the world.

AR and VR can also supplement training of personnel and will be of particular interest to the military in the coming years as the technology continues to mature. This is based on the concept of ‘one-to-many’ delivery of expertise from a central hub to remotely deployed operators and engineers, has the potential to drastically reduce training time, improve maintenance efficiency and bring huge cost savings.

Concluding Thoughts

AR is a revolutionary technology and has enormous potential for a variety of naval functions that span tactical operations, training, maintenance and supply chain management. At the operational level, it can be a game changer for situational awareness and improve decision-making in complex battle environments. Adopting AR can also help achieve information superiority over opponents.

However, to optimally use these systems and devices for naval operations and other uses, ‘right skills in the right place’ are critical. Further, integrating these with existing systems and processes would require innovative ways. At the levels of engineering, maintenance personnel would benefit enormously by offloading a number of such tasks to shore based agencies. In essence, AR is a game changer and a ‘win-win’ solution. Further, as wearable devices and technologies mature, the costs can be expected to decrease thereby ensuring availability even over the counter.

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