August 5, 2017:
In mid-2017 an Israeli firm announced it was marketing a ground vehicle version of the VR (virtual reality) capabilities already incorporated in some Israeli developed helmet displays used by pilots. The ground vehicle VR system is called Iron Vision and it is considered essential for next-generation tanks (like the Merkava 4) which will largely dispense with the traditional dependence on the tank commander spending a lot of time with his head sticking out of the turret to get a better view of the situation and have smaller crews only two or three. The VR helmet display would not just show video of what is outside but also an overlay of other information or even a map.
One drawback of adopting VR helmet displays on a wide scale for armored vehicle crews is the need to deal with the motion sickness problems some users encounter when first (or always) using the system. This is an old problem that was first encountered decades ago when modern flight simulators entered wide use for combat pilots. Back then it was called “simulator sickness.” It is related to sea sickness, which has been the bane of seafarers for thousands of years and was later found applicable to about a quarter of aircraft passengers. This motion sickness affected fewer pilots using modern (since the 1970s) flight simulators because one thing prospective military pilots must demonstrate is a resistance to motion sickness. Simulator sickness was different and many pilots resistant to motion sickness suffered from simulator sickness. It was found that, like the ancient sea sickness, over time most people got used to it (what the ancients called “getting your sea legs.”) But even screened and trained military aircrew sometimes (fewer than five percent) could not adjust to simulator sickness. Because simulator sickness tended to show up after you left the simulator (and your body failed to immediately adapt) the military found that this was a manageable problem.
Commercial VR (virtual reality) developers have a more serious problem as more of their potential users (women in general and kids before puberty) are susceptible and unlike adults on the job, you can’t compel consumers to do certain things (that take time and effort) to deal with the problem. Some will try the cure but the reality is that VR products currently have a bad reputation. That motivates commercial firms to find a solution and when they do, the military will have fewer problems with this and it may help air or ship passengers.
The Israeli army is considering all their current options here and for the moment have an alternative, which is simply showing the VR information on flat screen displays already common inside tanks. Tank crews, however, being mostly young men familiar with video games are more eager to go with the “glass armor” VR.
The simulator sickness problem for tank crews is quite recent. The Israeli firm (Elbit) that pioneered the use of helmet-mounted display systems for jet fighter pilots had, by 2016 presented versions for helicopter pilots and crews of armored vehicles. The helicopter version (BrightNite) and uses a multidirectional FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared Radar) to see clearly at night and display that data on special helmet visors used by pilots. In effect, while flying at night or in bad weather the BrightNite provides a form of “virtual reality” (VR) that enables the pilot to look in any direction and see what is out there in great detail and in real time. The visor display still provides pilot selectable aircraft data (speed, direction, overlays of mission data and so on). BrightNite also allows the pilot to look down and, in effect, see through the cockpit floor at the terrain below. This was the inspiration for the “glass armor” VR in armored vehicles.
With the IronVision helmets crews of armored vehicles simply displays video so a user inside the vehicle sees what the day/night vidcams and other sensors mounted on all sides of the vehicle see. In effect the crew can see through the armor at what is going on outside the vehicle. The IronVision HMS (Helmet Mounted System) is a major breakthrough because vehicle crews in combat are often forced to operate “buttoned up” (no one with their head outside the vehicle to see what was going on) because of intense enemy fire.
Armored vehicles have been moving towards something like IronVision since the 1990s as more and more vidcams were mounted out on the outside of the vehicle and more of them were designed to resist or adapt to combat damage. But the video had to be viewed on flat screen displays and crew had to click from one camera to another to see in different directions. By now most modern tanks (and many other armored vehicles) have enough cameras to see 360 degrees (all around) the vehicle as well as up. But IronVision eliminates the need to look at a flat screen and fiddle with camera controls. Crew simply turn on the HMS and see whatever they want by turning their heads. This is particularly critical in urban combat, where enemy troops, especially those armed with anti-vehicle rockets, can be anywhere, including the upper floors of buildings.
The tech for IronVision was developed from a concept that goes back to the 1950s when work on “smart helmets” developed for fighter pilots began. At first this was all about creating a HUD (Head Up Display), which at first was a system that projected data on a small transparent screen in front of the pilot. These first appeared in the late 1950s and were common in jet fighters by the late 1960s. The first helmet mounted displays appeared in South Africa in the 1970s. In the 1980s Israeli companies took the lead in developing this technology, and made many technical breakthroughs that led to DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) system in the 1980s. Elbit teamed up with American firms to develop and market JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems), which is largely an improved DASH system and entered service in 2002. Since then the technology has been developed rapidly to produce a combined VR and HUD.
The first visor displays soon evolved into the equivalent of a see-through computer monitor or HUD on the helmet visor. By 2000 this evolved to versions that enabled the pilot to can turn his head towards a target, get an enemy aircraft into the crosshairs displayed on the visor, and fire a missile that will promptly go after target the pilot was looking at. There is an additional advantage in letting the pilot look around more often without having to look down at cockpit displays, or straight ahead at a HUD mounted in front of the pilot just inside the canopy. The helmet mounted HUD gave an experienced pilot an extra edge in finding enemy aircraft or targets, and maneuvering to get into a better position for attacks. These pilot helmets were also useful for air-to-ground attacks, which the latest VR versions like BrightNite and IronVision are also designed to do.