Virtual and augmented reality devices are a technology that I like to keep a close eye on. In recent news, some Microsoft employees have protested the US Army’s $480 million contract for Microsoft’s HoloLens 2. I wanted to share my thoughts on this dilemma as being a part tech community who values privacy, citizen safety, and regulations, as well as a veteran of the Air Force, where the right technology can save the lives of those serving, and protect the way of life for those who do not. For those unclear on what the HoloLens 2 is, let me first provide a brief explanation.
Differences Between Mixed and Augmented Reality
The HoloLens 2 utilizes mixed reality, often referred to as hybrid reality; this technology merges real and virtual worlds to create new visualizations and environments where both digital and physical objects interact and co-exist. While mixed reality shares many traits with augmented reality, there are several differences between the two. Augmented reality implements computerized simulations and techniques such as animation, powered display environments, and text-to-speech recognition to overlay virtual objects over real-world environments. After all, the word augmented is defined as adding or enhancing something.
Mixed reality, while similar, is vastly different. By merging virtual and artificial worlds, entirely new visualization and environment are possible. Perhaps a better way to explain mixed reality would be to provide an example. Say the engine in your Subaru WRX was broken and you, being the overachiever that you are, decided to take on the project of fixing it. In the past, this task would involve purchasing a book that covers removing the engine, replacing every part, and then finally reinstalling it, as well as some trial and error (and thrown wrenches). Currently, this task would more than likely require many YouTube videos and questions in internet forums. With a device such as the HoloLens 2 headset, this project can be taken on with high accuracy, ease, and even provide an enjoyable user experience.
What Can It Do?
With the HoloLens, a set of digital instructions could theoretically appear over the broken engine, generated from a mock repair shop at Microsoft’s headquarters or other augmented reality company. In your field of vision, you will see digital arrows pointed to parts of the engine, circled bolts that you will need for each step, and even highlighted tools you will need for the job. Step by step, the HoloLens will walk you through the entire engine teardown and rebuild, providing you with unapparelled guidance; this is just an elementary example of what the HoloLens 2 can do, without even scraping the surface of the potential of the product. Before I move on, I think this is an excellent time to share that even though the cost of the HoloLens 2 is $3,500, how much would you have spent to have an engine repair shop rebuild an engine?
Now that I have shed some light on the capabilities of the HoloLens 2 and mixed reality, its military applications are immense. As a gamer, the HUD (Head-Up Display), has been an integral part of my life since I was a child. Showing a health bar, targeting reticule, ammo amount, navigation screen, as well as some form of a communication window all within your field of vision, the HUD provides critical real-time information as well as many life-saving features. With the HoloLens 2, a soldier can be given and shown mission objectives, easily see navigational waypoints (such as the position and distance of the nearest medical facility), effortlessly mark targets for air support, and even potentially use radar and thermal imaging to see the enemy before they see you. A HoloLens could provide a soldier with the vehicle schematics of an enemy tank, highlighting its weak points, increasing the chance of a successful attack. Furthermore, augmented, VR, and mixed reality headsets provide immersive virtual training scenarios, allowing soldiers to experience real-world scenarios in digital form. Highly trained soldiers are not only more efficient at destroying the enemy; they also benefit from the reduced risk of civilian casualties due to their actions.
Military’s Need for This Technology
In my years in the U.S. Air Force, I saw first-hand how technology could impact the effectiveness of combat missions in terms of destroying the enemy, as well as limiting the amount of potential collateral damage. For example, I worked as a munitions technician, building and installing munitions such as dumb bombs (drop from the sky with no guidance) and smart missiles (guided munitions). With the influence of technology, a missile guided by a satellite, thermal, laser, or radar, can select and destroy a target with fantastic accuracy, significantly reducing the threat to surrounding civilians. With HoloLens 2, our soldiers can be better equipped for missions, protecting their lives, as well as ensuring that their job gets done. While I can sympathize with the protesting Microsoft workers who claim they never signed up for designing military applications for their devices, it is the U.S. military who allows them to speak their mind in the first place.
Understanding the Protest
As I tend to always to defend both sides on many debates, the tech nerd in me understands why some Microsoft employees view this military contract as going against their ideals. For a company such as Microsoft to get involved with military applications, there are several reasons why this can be troublesome. Many view our military as oppressive and guided by men who have wealth in mind (oil) and not the safety of the countries we fight against. Others merely believe that a civilian company who prizes themselves for bettering the world, should not dabble in the affairs of war. This particular debate is nothing new. Last year, Google protested Project Maven, which would have utilized AI to design weapons more efficiently. Also last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a petition letter to Amazon, asking them to stop selling its advanced surveillance system to law enforcement. Finally, around 3 years ago, Apple fought the FBI on whether it should aid the government in hacking a terrorist’s iPhone; these examples show the ongoing fight between integrating civilian and military technology, but one must ask themselves, isn’t the safety and effectiveness of our military men and women, who ensure the protection of our way of life, worth helping in any way possible?
No matter your personal political beliefs, there is merit to how necessary it is to have the military’s technology advance alongside civilian’s capabilities. I know many would argue, “when does the U.S. actually have to protect its citizens from outside threats?” and “how does providing our soldiers with deadlier weapons to use in expanding their dominance in other parts of the world help us?” Well, I will only say that, if you are reading this right now at your desk or on your phone, look around at your surroundings. If you are not speaking German (the entire world almost did), have food in your stomach, and are not terrified of taking that next flight out of town on business, thank a soldier. If you decide to respond to that statement with hate, again, you can do that, but only by utilizing the rights that the U.S. military protect with their lives.