After a test phase where the military quickly felt nausea and headaches, the US Congress paused the purchase of AR headsets from Microsoft. But give 40 million to Microsoft to review its copy. This while the future of its Hololens division is uncertain.
Three short hours: that’s the time it took soldiers testing Microsoft’s combat headset to start feeling nauseous and unwell. Suffice to say that the 72-hour field test conducted by the American army must not have been pleasant for these poor soldiers! A failure that prompted the US Congress to pause the headset purchase program from Microsoft. A “giant” contract, the most extensive version of which amounts to 21.9 billion dollars over ten years.
The field test was conducted with no less than 70 soldiers who were integrated into an intense three-day non-stop (72h) combat scenario. Derived from its Hololens 2 professional helmet, the version used by the soldiers meets military specifications in terms of resistance, battery life, etc. It incorporates more sensors and military-grade components, especially at the imaging level (the details are classified, but the images speak for themselves). The problem being that after 3 hours, 80% of the soldiers began to feel noticeable discomfort, which took the form of ” headaches, eye pain and nausea “. To this major discomfort, which is not very compatible with combat situations, the soldiers also noted numerous ” failures of essential functions of the device. Bad publicity for a contract whose first tranche of $400 million covers 6,900 helmets.
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After the US Army (1) has already added 125 million dollars to the pot for a first revision of the model, the US Congress (which brings together the Senate and the House of Representatives) puts on hold the acquisition of more helmets. But US lawmakers are still spending an extra $40 million to develop a new version that fixes the current problems. The question being where Microsoft is going in the field…
Microsoft’s AR strategy in doubt
This military pendant isn’t the only element of Microsoft’s AR strategy that’s swaying right now. Last October, the American press already revealed that the development of the Hololens 2 was in turmoil. With a “decimated” development team, many rumors point to the outright abandonment of the third version of the helmet. It is however highly anticipated, since the previous version dates from 2019. An eternity in the world of tech. While it’s impossible to say where Microsoft is in rebuilding its AR development unit, the potential of the military contract alone should at least ensure continuity in this particular program. It remains to be seen, however, whether Microsoft will end up throwing in the towel or transferring its unit to another company.
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With the upcoming arrival of Apple’s headset and the development of increasingly durable and/or powerful chips for AR/VR/MR/XR headsets, the market still seems buoyant. But perhaps Microsoft and the military moved a little fast before rolling out such technology to fighters. You didn’t have to be a diviner to know that the latency times and image definitions of a three-year-old platform are not suitable for being worn for 72 hours without negative effects. The positive aspect of the thing being that now, the field test carried out leaves no room for doubt.
It remains to be seen what the right technological moment will be for Microsoft – or another – to develop what will be the first true combat AR headset in history. Equipment which could, within the framework of the “digitalization of the battle space” strategies of the armies of the various countries, change the nature of the war a little further. The current Ukrainian example has highlighted the importance of technological innovations in the way of conducting conflicts. Whether it’s piloting artillery by drones or using live video feedback via Starlink to coordinate infantry in real time, technology is advancing more and more in battle strategies. Could a “super” helmet have the same impact?
(1): one of the corps of the American armed forces alongside the Marines, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guards)