What’s New Is Old
Jon Peddie
JUN 03, 2016 15:06 PM
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What’s New Is Old

Augmented reality traces its roots to the cold war

By Jon Peddie

Augmented reality (AR) systems come in a various models or designs, glasses, headsets, and helmets to name the most popular. AR helmets are used for industrial applications such as maintenance and repair, first responders such as firemen, rescue workers, and they are used by military pilots. AR helmets are also being introduced for motorcyclists and provide a head’s up display (HUD) of road conditions and nearby attractions. BMW has demonstrated such a helmet, and Skully has sold a few. Inside the DOT/ECE certified helmet, the user has intelligent audio, helmet-to-helmet communication, hands-free calling, music streaming, and GPS navigation via Bluetooth to a cell phone,

AR-based HUD helmets like the Skully will be available this year (Source Skully)

In addition, the helmet has 180° blind spot rear view cameras that shows up on a transparent heads-up display built into the visor (which the company says is scratch, and glare resistant).

The AR-1 is listed at $1,499.

Possibly the most expensive AR helmet available today is the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike fighter aircraft HMDS (helmet mounted display system) developed by Vision Systems International (VSI; the Elbit Systems/Rockwell Collins joint venture). The F-35 HMDS sells for about $400,000 each.


F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike fighter aircraft HMDS (Source Marines Magazine)

The military has been the founding agency of AR helmets, going back to 1971, and South Africa. Even before, since 1965, in an attempt to improve aircraft man-machine design, human-factors engineers of the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, (a unit of Aerospace Medical Division) had been pioneering techniques to "visually couple" the operator to his weapon system.

Look here, shoot there

Investigation into using AR for pilot’s helmets was started in 1967 by Tom Furness, while he was in the U.S. Air Force. The first experimental head-mounted displays (HMD) were simple devices introduced in the mid-1970s to aid in targeting of heat seeking missiles, sometimes called Helmet-Mounted Sights.

The Mirage F1AZ developed by the South African Air Force (SAAF) in the early 1970s enabled a pilot to make bore attacks, without having to maneuver to the optimum firing position. (converging guns at a point along the path of flight is commonly referred to as "point bore sighting")

South Africa subsequently emerged as one of the pioneers and leaders in helmet-mounted sight technology. The SAAF was also the first air force to fly the helmet sight operationally.

The US Navy's Visual Target Acquisition System (VTAS), made by Honeywell Corporation was a simple mechanical "ring and bead"–style sight, fitted to the front of the pilot's helmet and flown in the 1974–78 in U.S. F-14 and F-15 fighters.

A HMD sight, facilitates wide off-boresight sensor or weapon aiming and speeds target acquisition. It permits continuous visual attention to the target outside the cockpit while sensors/weapons are slewed, and the hands are free from slewing control.
(Source Honeywell)

The US Navy were the first to field an operational helmet-mounted sight system in a fighter aircraft, the Visual Target Acquisition System, also known as VTAS. The VTAS interfaced with the Sidewinder Expanded Acquisition Mode (SEAM) installed in US Navy F-4 Phantom II aircraft to exploit the advanced lock-on possibilities in the AIM-9G Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

The Honeywell integrated helmet and display sighting system (IHADSS) is one of the most successful see-through systems in army aviation. which was first fielded in 1985. In 1982, Tom Furness (University of Washington HIT lab) demonstrated the visually coupled airborne systems simulator (VCASS), the U.S. Air Force's super-cockpit VR system.

Back to the future

And so today, just 40+ years later we (almost) have commercially available AR helmets based on the same principals, and looking very similar to those worn by the cold war fighter pilots. The big differences are the modern helmets use OLED displays instead of CRTs and mirrors, run on batteries instead of being tethered to an airplane, and communicate wirelessly to our phones and the internet.

AR helmets will be a major segment in the AR market, spanning consumer products (i.e., motorcycle and maybe small private airplanes) to industrial, emergency, and military sub-segments. They will be a mix of data only systems and full graphics for maps and mixed reality applications.

On the consumer side laws will have to be passed to regulate safety features. Will helmet wearers be able to have text audio systems and speech recognition to send texts, or will that be considered too distracting and unsafe at any speed? Will the consumer helmets have gaze monitoring and warning to alert the wearer to look at the road and not the data? And will some motorcyclists be killed wearing such helmets and the helmet companies sued because of it? Well maybe in South Africa, but nothing like that could ever happen in the U.S.

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