Microsoft Patents Smaller Form Factor Hololens AR Headset
Andrew Wheeler posted on January 28, 2019 |

Since the first virtual fixtures systems were developed by the US Airforce in the 1990’s, augmented reality has gained traction across several industries, and adoption is expected primarily in the gaming and entertainment industries. Companies like Alphabet and Microsoft have tried their hand at augmented reality with offerings like Google Glass and the HoloLens. The HoloLens was Microsoft’s entry into the world of augmented reality where in late September 2018, it won a $480 Million contract to provide its HoloLens technology to the US military. As part of its augmented reality program, which is called Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), the US army plans on using the HoloLens to increase lethality through enhanced detection, decision and engagement abilities. Israel and the US Army have already used these devices during their training ops, but the on-field deployment would be a huge boost for Microsoft’s long-term augmented reality goals.

Microsoft’s new patent provides a new and better-looking augmented reality headset that promises several viable and commercial and military applications. Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
Microsoft’s new patent provides a new and better-looking augmented reality headset that promises several viable and commercial and military applications. Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

With a new patent filed during the same time in September 2018 and published on January 24, 2019, Microsoft made a bold statement about its keen interest in developing augmented reality applications. 

The abstract of the public patent read as follows: “This disclosure concerns an interactive head-mounted eyepiece with an integrated processor for handling content for display and an integrated image source for introducing the content to an optical assembly through which the user views a surrounding environment and the displayed content, wherein the eyepiece includes event and user action control of external applications.” (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The abstract of the public patent read as follows: “This disclosure concerns an interactive head-mounted eyepiece with an integrated processor for handling content for display and an integrated image source for introducing the content to an optical assembly through which the user views a surrounding environment and the displayed content, wherein the eyepiece includes event and user action control of external applications.” (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

This patent clearly shows that the glasses have the same capabilities of a HoloLens, but the differentiation occurs primarily to incorporate the smaller frame design. It is far less bulky and unwieldy than the current HoloLens. In its patent disclosure, Microsoft displayed about 105 possible applications of the glasses including daily tasks like viewing personal emails and answering phone calls. It also included real time enhancements of images and possible real time image and virtual perspective corrections. Another interesting application displayed was a feature that enabled seeing through dust, fog and smoke. Integrating this feature into military applications would mean that soldiers could through smoke screens during combat.

The patent also describes how tourist information could be digitally overlaid onto real world architecture. These could be ideal for travelling and sight-seeing applications. Biometric collection applications and facial and iris recognition applications and network communications applications are also described. These would be used among the hypothetical collective of smaller form-factor HoloLens users.

One interesting application that could be military or civilian was the description of a visual word translator, indicating the possibility of real-time language translation applications in AR. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
One interesting application that could be military or civilian was the description of a visual word translator, indicating the possibility of real-time language translation applications in AR. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

Overall, this new form factor Microsoft is exploring tackles the main design obstacle to consumer adoption, which is that the current AR headsets are far too unwieldy. Besides that, there are no killer applications that leverage the glasses form factor over the smartphone form factor. Despite receiving criticism from its employees for its intent to bid for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), a cloud building service for the department of defense, and for assisting in the development of tools facilitating war efforts and enhancing battle capabilities, Microsoft, more than any other company out there, is on track to be at the forefront of AR. Whether mass adoption ever occurs is another story. It's hard to imagine anything replacing the smartphone form factor. The AR headset that comes to the masses would have to derive value from having your hands free, and privacy controls to avoid the unanimously rejected Google Glass form factor.

How will this be used with the US Military?

Microsoft beat out Magic Leap to win a USD 480 million contract from the Department of Defense for augmented reality. Given the fact that practical applications for augmented reality are few and far between, you may be wondering what kind of uses the United States military has in mind for augmented reality headsets, and specifically the Microsoft HoloLens. 

Also, what was it that made HoloLens beat out Magic Leap? 

Well, for one thing, you have to consider the existing relationship between Microsoft and the US government, which has existed for decades now since the browser wars of the 1990s and the anti-trust lawsuit filed by the US government as a result. The US government charged Microsoft with anti-competitive practices and having a monopoly that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Since that lawsuit has settled, things have been mostly copacetic between the two entities. In fact, Microsoft started off this year not only by winning a huge augmented reality contract, but by winning a $1.76 billion contract with the Department of Defense for software development services and a new certification for its Outlook mobile app. The pre-existing relationship with the US government probably helped Microsoft secure that augmented reality contract.

But given the recent downfall of a few of the bigger augmented reality companies, Microsoft HoloLens is really the front runner of the AR headset market, with Magic Leap behind them and Apple looming and teetering with the prospect of an Apple AR headset.

But Microsoft HoloLens is the official choice of the US Department of Defense. 

When training soldiers and sailors with simulations, the lack of realism is very apparent. There are no enemies present, the adrenaline isn't pumping and future warfighters know this. Simulations for soldiers teach them how to use their equipment and weapons safely. But the US Navy developed and built a realistic augmented reality simulation system for HoloLens. 

Known as the Weapons Augmented Reality Scoring System (WARSS), live-fire simulations present sailors in training with digital enemies in their Field-of-View (FoV) on HoloLens. The system has analytics that are displayed in real-time for sailors locked into the simulation. The major difference this provides is in the ammunition. Instead of firing blanks at pretend targets during simulation, the WARSS HoloLens allows them to transform the training into a live-fire exercise. The system keeps track of shots fired, landed and missed in real-time for the sailor to see. 

What does firing live ammunition at digital targets feel like?

Well, it feels more realistic, and that's the point. 

Captain Steve Murray is a major program manager for surface ship readiness at Naval Sea Systems Command, and he said the following: 

"When you focus on just simulated training, your risk equation is different. It can help you learn how to use the weapons, it can help you think about the environment. When you add all that stress in, you need to build a realistic environment to ensure you get the result you want when you're actually called to fight." 

What else do the soldiers see in their HoloLens during the live-fire exercise?

WARSS allows remote monitoring of the training on desktop workstations and laptops, which is beneficial for such a distributed force as the US Navy. High-ranking officers anywhere in the world can view the training in real-time.

Bottom Line

Microsoft HoloLens appears to be the augmented reality headset of choice for US-allied militaries around the world, including the Royal Australian Air Force and the British Royal Navy. Both began using Microsoft HoloLens extensively, and one can conclude that this newer, smaller form factor has a lot to do with feedback from these global naval forces.

No soldier is going to want to wear the current version of the HoloLens, due to it's weight and bulkiness. Even though HoloLens is only used away from battlefronts and mostly in training exercises, serious militaries want training to be as seamless as possible, and a smaller form factor of HoloLens may yet see its day on the battlefield.

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