Imagine a world where, instead of showing Google Maps on your phone, you can view step-by-step 3D directions from your contact lenses. Now imagine that the same technology is used to train the next generation of fighter pilots and Navy SEALs. Imagine making decisions based on information presented the way we have spent our lives perceiving it in 3D. This is where Extended Reality, or XR, innovation is heading, and the impact on the practices of the Department of Defense and Federal / Civilian agencies will be transformational.
Extended reality is a broad term that encompasses immersive technologies through virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. This approach extends reality by simulating or adding to real-world scenarios via digital tools. It’s revolutionary because of the way people perceive it.
Traditionally, people interact with information primarily in two dimensions: think classroom whiteboards, PowerPoint presentations, and online video tutorials. XR technology is human-centric because it provides insight into how humans have always viewed the world throughout our lifetimes: in 3D, not through spreadsheets and 2D images. XR offers users the ability to see the problem from the same point of view through which they are living real life, enabling faster and more efficient decision making. Using headsets, goggles, mobile devices and software, XR gives users a hands-on virtual experience to accelerate skill retention and demonstrate capabilities faster than any other tool. Three years from now, XR will be so ubiquitous that almost everyone will have access to some kind of XR technology that impacts their daily lives. But to take full advantage of XR, we need to take advantage of emerging technologies to open up new opportunities and remove barriers to adoption.
A perfect match: XR + IA
One of the biggest advantages and opportunities that XR offers over traditional simulation technology is its ability to integrate with data analysis tools through artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sophisticated analytics. Imagine a fighter moving into a scenario where he not only has a realistic 3D view of the battlespace, but also displays real-time intelligence data on the opponent’s positioning and resource allocation across a single window. As they evolve in the XR environment, AI and ML tools dynamically update ever-changing data to inform decision-making. This is the future of multi-domain warfare, and it is essential that personnel prepare for decision support in these environments.
The other benefit is AI-driven learning. AI and ML are able to provide different clues and scenarios based on user decisions. Staff could go through XR modules that adapt to changing conditions based on a multitude of variables, measuring effectiveness along the way while mitigating the risk of falling into negative learning experiences.
Overcome barriers to adoption: mobility, culture and cost
Like any emerging technology, adoption requires proven value, ease of use, and affordability.
XR is still often viewed as a “new” technology within DOD, and it will need to gain leadership in three main areas to realize its full potential for transforming human performance.
Away from the huge and expensive simulation environments that DOD has used for decades – think flight simulators – one of the huge advantages of XR software is that it is flexible enough to be placed on a variety of form factors. But skeptics still fear that the fit, shape and volume of certain devices, from helmets to glasses, could physically hinder or limit users. The good news is that as technology advances, mobility and ease of use improve dramatically. There is a not-so-distant future where staff each have XR glasses and AI and ML activated contact lenses, guiding them through immersive training scenarios. And existing headsets are getting lighter, more comfortable, more wireless and more mobile every day. Additionally, we shouldn’t limit XR rigs to only head-mounted displays; mobile smartphones with XR platforms are contributing to the ubiquity of XR, and we are on the verge of unleashing the potential.
Change is always a challenge, especially when a new technology combats the previously mentioned perception of “newness”. The best way to prove the value of technology is to show what it has already done. The Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program used augmented reality and virtual reality systems to dramatically optimize overall pilot training time while improving retention. Using a digital classroom where low-cost simulators replaced books, staff learned at their own pace and adopted gamification techniques to optimize skills. This is the type of success story that can go a long way in educating managers about the benefits of XR training in terms of speed and performance.
Finally, the industry must find innovative ways to rationalize costs and make technology accessible to every DOD service member who needs it. XR has a reputation for being expensive, which is sometimes true, but prices drop quickly. XR is often much cheaper than sending staff out into the field for training, for example, and the industry continues to become more efficient on all form factors and integrators come up with risk mitigation strategies that help. obsolescence of investments in this exponentially improving environment. Even so, there is still work to be done.
We are on the cusp of a radical change in immersive experiences aided by expansive realities. Frost and Sullivan predicted that XR technologies will be as ubiquitous as laptops by 2030, and DOD pockets are already leading the charge and realizing transformational mission benefits in retention, speed and performance. Industry has a responsibility to innovate and foster greater flexibility and accessibility to pave the way for a new world of enhanced performance aided by immersive experiences.
Bob Kleinhample is Vice President of Immersive Technologies at SAIC.