The U.S. Army recently received a report on 2021 infantry experience with a new item of equipment. The infantrymen who used the new item said they would never use it in combat because it would get them killed. The item in question is IVAS (Integrated Visual Augmentation System), which is the Microsoft militarized HoloLens VR (Virtual reality) goggles. The report was about the IVAS units that had been modified to address problems the army reported to Microsoft in 2021. Soldiers using IVAS under simulated combat conditions reported that the device was not rugged or light enough for combat use and required too much battery power. IVAS was supposed to be waterproof but wasn’t. In 2021 the army ordered a report on soldier reactions to IVAS and that report was delivered and made public in October 2022.
This all began in 2020 when the army gave Microsoft a contract for IVAS worth up to $22 billion (if it worked). Microsoft said it could adapt the commercial VR HoloLens headset so that it could replace existing gear like the ENVG-B (Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular) while also providing many more capabilities. This seemed unlikely to many infantrymen, who are avid users of FPS (First Person Shooter) combat games and follow the development of these games.
When these user problems were discovered in 2021 the army “paused” the IVAS project and said it would only be delayed a year and would soon be back on schedule. Those kinds of assurances usually mean the army will be in big trouble if they can’t make IVAS work because IVAS was also expected to revolutionize combat training as well as improve on existing favorites of combat troops.
Left unsaid was that the army already had a successful ENVG-B which was receiving regular upgrades since 2009 that gave it many of the IVAS features and was already operating successfully in combat. Additional features IVAS include built-in audio for communications and VR features, which add weight, bulk and power demands that the army knows are a major obstacle for troop acceptance, especially for use in combat rather than just training.
The army had long sought something like IVAS for their “Soldier of the Future” concept. While the army had sometimes adapted commercial tech for combat use, it was more difficult to do that for infantry equipment because of the harsher conditions and troop resistance to carrying more weight, especially if the additional gear did not provide some spectacular improvements over current equipment.
IVAS was seen as overly ambitious for use by infantry and that proved to be the case. The army also underestimated the importance of the ENVG-B as a combat proven item that was adding more IVAS features one at a time while keeping all the existing ENVG-B gear operational. There’s no pause feature for troop training and combat demands.
ENVG entered service in 2009, as improved NVG (night vision Goggle) tech that has been around since the 1960s and kept evolving since then with particularly rapid upgrades after 2000. A lot of the new tech was coming from work done on helicopter and jet fighter pilot HMDS (Helmet-Mounted Display System). Israeli firms led in developing new tech and software for HMDS and were the first to transfer it to equipment for ground troops. This involved replacing the traditional goggles with a display on the inside of the pilots’ visor. This display can use more powerful sensors the aircraft is carrying to not only produce far better range and field of view than goggles but also VR capabilities. This means being able to look in any direction, even metal parts of the aircraft (like the cockpit floor) and see what is out there. The pilot can see these images in a more realistic light.
The next feature for ENVG-B is software-enabled IronVision, which comes from Israel. IronVision was developed nearly a decade ago and first used for aircraft, which enabled the pilot to look down and see what a vidcam on the bottom of the aircraft was seeing, or select rear view. The army version was for tank crews in the form of a face visor for each member of the crew so they can, while inside the vehicle, see what the day/night vidcams 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) was a breakthrough because vehicle crews in combat are often forced to operate “buttoned up”, as in no one with their head outside the vehicle to see what was going on because of intense enemy fire. Instead of a separate visor, ENVG-B will use its wireless capability to connect with the vehicle (tank or Infantry Fighting Vehicle aka IFV) external vidcams to enable crew plus troops carried inside the IFV to see what is outside. This would be a big boost in situational awareness for troops who travel in IFVs and that’s why the Americans are trying to implement EBVG-B rather than the Israeli approach.
IronVision is already used in the F-35 HMDS and for Israeli pilots and tank crews. ENVG-B already has wi-fi that enables ENVG-B using IronVision to do much of what IVAS was aiming for. The army realized that it could either further develop the combat tested and troop favorite ENVG-B or spend a lot of time and money to create something similar and potentially superior using the HoloLens. EBVG-B has already solved the weight, ruggedness, power requirements and troop acceptance problems IVAS was just beginning to deal with.
The original ENVG monocular began troop (“field”) testing in 2005 and it took four years of that before it was ready for regular use, ENVG-B (binocular) with wi-fi and some VR capabilities was ready by 2018. The troops found it useful enough to justify the additional weight and power consumption. IVAS is at least a decade away from matching that and in that time ENVG-B development will provide even more of the data-sharing and VR capabilities that the much more expensive IVAS is still working on. Trying to leap-frog existing combat tech is always a gamble and the IVAS/ENVG-B situation is another expensive example.