The U.S. military is exploring the potential of augmented reality on the battlefield as part of its continuing effort to load foot soldiers up with as much useful information as the Pentagon can supply without weighing them down so much with hardware they can't get to their feet, let alone march on them.
The latest iteration of the long series of experiments with labels like Future Combat Systems – which have produced a few genuinely beneficial new capabilities amongst a raft of failures – is a smart contact lens designed to make it easier to focus on a heads-up display projected on eyewear that doesn't blind the user to anything but the screen.
There is even another smart contact lens in the works. There are far fewer (none) that are unobtrusive enough to be tacked onto a regular set of glasses or goggles so the user can see through the glasses clearly and see the ghostly, projected HUD at the same time.
Google's Project Glass is one of the more elegant-looking versions of the latter approach.
The glasses, as modeled by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, are clear, half-rim glasses with an L-shaped module attached to the right temple, stretching from the to the lens, curving around near the top of the lens so the projector is out of the user's direct eyeline but is close enough to project its own images on the lens.
Focusing on an image so close is a big problem, because of how close the HUD projector has to be to the eye and the virtual distance needed to make the HUD image big enough to read.
Human eyes aren't good at focusing on details in both extremely short and extremely long detail at the same time.
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) just signed a contract under which an optics company called Innovega in Bellvue, Wash. will develop a version of its dual-focus contact lens and accompanying HUD-display eyeglasses to DARPA's specs, according to an interview company CEO Steve Willey did with the BBC.
The contact lens allows human eyes to simultaneously focus on images that are ultra-close and those that are farther away by piping in the image from an accessory such as a HUD display and display it using the multiple-focus optic splitter designed into the contact lenses.
Making wearable HUD displays smaller, lighter, more energy efficient and easier to use is a huge priority for those within the military eager to put tactical information in the hands of troops who need it. Past efforts have provided useful information – according to the evaluations of the troops testing them in the field – but were too heavy, too awkward or displayed data too out of date to be useful to most ground troops.
The reliability and security of wireless networks connecting individual modules carried by one soldier and connecting troops to one another were bigger problems than the heads-up displays in the failure of the wearable hardware that was part of Future Combat System, which was killed in 2009.
The eyepiece in that case was a helmet-mounded opaque module troops would have to focus on while trying to keep an eye on approaching dangers with the other eye.
In live-combat tests in Afghanistan, most troops ditched the video, relying on squad leaders and field officers, who did use the monitors, to pass along the information they needed.
Innovega's combination of smart contact lenses and eyeglasses is designed to make displays easily wearable (once troops get the monstrous-looking contact lens onto their eyes.
The result may not be as elegant as the design prototype in most of the Google glasses pictures, but Google's might not be as elegant when it does what it's supposed to do, either.
Putting augmented reality into a contact lens might cause the kind of cognitive dissonance, disturbances of balance and problems with spatial awareness that are common side effects of anything that changes our perception of motion or depth may be a problem, and there's no proof troops will be able to see both images clearly.
"Two superimposed images tend to be degraded and lower in contrast," Gary Rubin, a professor at University College London's Institute of Ophthalmology told the BBC. "I question whether a multi-focal contact lens is the right solution."
Neither DARPA nor Innovega are claiming the super-eyeball will be helping U.S. troops on the battlefield any time soon. It may take a year or two to get the prototype up to DARPA's specs and start testing.
In the meantime, Innovega is already testing the iOptik lenses and glasses with the FDA. Willey said he expects the civilian version will be available by the end of 2014.
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