Science Fiction Soldiers

Watch any science fiction film and the soldiers always seem to have a heads up display where information is fused seamlessly and presented to the wearer.

Whilst science and technology marches on at a relentless pace, the current state of the art seems, at least in virtual or synthetic environments, somewhat clunky.


The Google Glass type display that projects symbology onto a normal pair of glasses seems the most likely to be adopted first but one of the difficulties, apart from all the usual power, weight and what exactly would be displayed issues, is combining protective glass with a lightweight projector.

Google Glass

A recent announcement from a Finnish company, VTT, may be important on the road to Sci Fi Soldiers.

The technology is based on lightguide optics, which enables the manufacture of displays on either glass or plastic in the form of light and thin elements with a thickness of just one millimetre. In addition to thinness, the benefits of the technology include a large, high-quality virtual image and excellent transparency. The display element can also be freely shaped.

“Compared to existing solutions, which are bulky or difficult to manufacture, the Dispelix solution has advantages such as the display’s thinness, lightness, aesthetic appearance and volume production compatibility,” says Sunnari.

The display’s user-friendliness is boosted by the fact that the virtual image forms within the user’s field of vision, which prevents eye strain. Dispelix’s display solution can be customised to meet different customer needs – depending on the application, either simple, monochrome information or a multi-coloured video image can be displayed within the user’s field of vision.

“The size of the virtual image is equivalent to a 60-inch TV viewed from a distance of three metres,” Sunnari explains.

Interesting stuff.

Smart Glass

One day…



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November 15, 2015 9:09 pm

Top picture is Oculus Rift, created through Kickstarter which raised $2.5 million. It’s a Virtual Reality headset that completely covers the eyes, it would be interesting to imagine what use it would be to a vehicle commander (as in the pic) in a real time situation. It could be used in training though, but again it would be limited because you can’t see your hands to press buttons, triggers etc.

November 15, 2015 9:27 pm

Watch out, coming soon (but not on this channel}:
Multimodal Soldier Interface System (MUMSIS)
Multimodal Soldier Interface System (MUMSIS) is a research and development project under the framework of the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Combat Equipment for Dismounted Soldier Feasibility Study Programme (CEDS-FSP).
The objective of the MUMSIS project is to develop a demonstrator of a wearable system that ensures the timely delivery and collection of reliable and accurate information in a context adaptive way and supports communication within the chain of command. The project focuses on the human factors in demanding operating environments and tasks. The project utilises and studies technologies such as
Head Mounted Displays (HMD), Augmented Reality (AR) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

November 15, 2015 9:30 pm

If they can make night vision lenses one atom thick, they’ll crack this one.
Brought to you by graphene… just another British invention!

November 15, 2015 10:31 pm

There was a programme called FIST (standing for Future Infantry Soldier Technology I think) which was a tech demonstrator for network-connected infantry. A whizzy idea to get the latest tac picture and threat analysis and orders to the soldier and live-feed recce data and imagery from the soldier. Or something like that. There was a televised trial of the system many years ago, very memorable for all the wrong reasons. Fairly obviously to get bulk data and video to remote infantry requires high data rate radio – they’re not going to trail fibre-optic cables from their boots, are they? High data rates means high frequency. The designers settled on microwave links as the optimum bearer. No doubt it worked really well in the lab.

The trial had the infantry, clad in loads of technology and wearing the helmet mounted display, deploy as their training demanded against a dug-in enemy. So the soldiers were low, camouflaged and taking advantage of any cover. “You have just been sent your orders!” called out the trials officer. “Have you received them?” “No Sir.” “Well can you try lifting the antenna a bit?” “Its attached to the webbing Sir. It cannot be detached.” “Well roll around a bit to see if we can get a better signal…” In the end the hapless soldier was stood bolt upright on a clump to get his antenna in clear line of sight to the HQ transmitter. No doubt the dug-in enemy were incapable of shooting at the infantryman because they were helpless with laughter.

All this networking and web-enabling comes with serious comms overheads. Despite mobile cell base stations sprouting out of every farm village and hilltop, there are still difficulties getting mobile slots to make a call, because everybody carries a personal comms terminal that demands regular handshakes. And those cell base stations are not short of a channel or two. Would it be realistic to imagine a field HQ to have such a radio station? How powerful to get to the furthest soldier? How could it be directional unless there were regular mobile-like handshakes between soldier & HQ? How on earth does this not feed the opposition a huge RF Intelligence picture of the precise location of every soldier and their HQ?

Its quite easy to forget, as we play with the likes of Google Earth on the mobile, that there is a massive data trail fed by powerful transmitters that makes it work. Similarly its quite easy to be seduced by all the apps on the average mobile and demand that the same functionality be provided to the military. The issue is not only the equipment and software they carry, but the vast amount of data radio traffic required to keep those systems updated.

November 15, 2015 11:32 pm

The display technology is rather unimportant, albeit easily illustrated and fascinating with its pop culture and entertainment tech links.

The most important technological advance for the infantry in the last two decades was likely the squad radio for everyone. It allows squads to disperse better and squad leaders to still lead and control squad fires better. This has become really cheap and affordable even for low tech armies in Africa (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they make use or even good use of it).

November 16, 2015 9:40 am

: There’s some rather productive work going on to make a lot of the applications less data intensive for the sort of high-latency/low-bandwidth connections operations have to cope with. Also on cutting down handshakes, which is a real problem given the amount of times the connections are inevitably lost and re-established. I think one of the major blocking factors at a system level is battery technology, which has advanced at a rate far slower than all of the systems that depend on it.

November 16, 2015 10:08 am

on cutting down handshakes, which is a real problem given the amount of times the connections are inevitably lost and re-established.

@Will, are you aware of ad hoc networks (concept)? It is deemed to be able to deal with that problem, among others

The US Army’s “Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2 provides an integrated tactical network leveraging proven commercial and government technology. … Increment 2 extends the network to company level for maneuver brigades for the … division to company in a mobile, ad-hoc, self-forming, self-healing network.” [text from wiki]
is by no means the only one; some other countries have configured the networks in such a way that even squad level (digital) radios can function as nodes.
– err, you have to buy those radios first. TD was planning something for a field comms piece a couple of years back, but information in this field is difficult to come by at detail level

EDIT: I just noticed that SO and I used the “squad radio” term in a different meaning; in my meaning there is one of them, and they still weigh that much that the operator becomes more of a specialist and less of a rifleman

November 16, 2015 10:24 am
Reply to  Clive

@Clive – Well spotted re Oculus Rift. I agree it’s hard to imagine its use for an IN-SITU vehicle commander as shown in the picture. I can however see how it might open the doors for more situational awareness in non-autonomous unmanned vehicles on land, sea or air. It could provide the operator at a remote base a far more immersive experience, one that is as close as possible to actually being present in the vehicle. Head/eye tracking technology similar to that found in Apache and F-35 could be used to synchronise on-vehicle sensors with the operator’s head movements to allow him or her to look around as desired.

Buttons could become virtual within the operators field of view and I believe that hand awareness can already be provided by wearing special gloves so that the software can track the user’s hand movements and superimpose a representation of the users hands and their movements into the virtual field of view. The same could probably be used to address the issues of pressing real buttons in a training simulator.

One thing to be aware of is that these things currently need a lot of processing power when doing genuine virtual reality as opposed to augmented reality. A friend of mine got one of these a few months ago and got a high-end graphics card to drive it. When it arrived he found that a high-end card wasn’t powerful enough, he needed a VERY-high-end graphics card. That’s a pretty trivial issue when used for remote operator control or in a training simulator where it’s going to be in a base camp environment with suitable logistics and power but when out in the field it’s something to consider. Right now if a soldier wanted to use this in full virtual reality mode when on patrol they’d probably need to carry the equivalent a high-end gaming PC drawing about 800W of power continuous when in use but, as Clive says, right now I struggle to see an in-field use for any full virtual reality application.

November 16, 2015 10:34 am

Here is ” a truly tactical IP
backbone supporting the three required topologies for point-to-point high-capacity line-of-sight links (between
battalion/brigade CP and above at 40 Mb/s, NATO Band IV), Point-to-Multipoint (P2MP) broadband access (at battalion
level CP at 20 Mb/s, NATO Band III) and high data rate MANET (between battalion/companies/platoons at 10 Mb/s,
NATO Band I), in addition to a zero-RF (radio-frequency) option for high-speed wired connectivity at rates exceeding 5
Mb/s. ” a write-up by Jane’s from last year. The use of directional antennae did not fit into one quote, but more importantly, the network is COTS besides the military-grade radios and the specific configs, to fit into vehicles and CBRN-protected command posts (read: containers, of course as we are on TD here).

November 16, 2015 2:11 pm
Reply to  ArmChairCivvy


@Will, are you aware of ad hoc networks (concept)? It is deemed to be able to deal with that problem, among others

I’m aware of the concept but not of any operational deployments, entirely possible there have been some. I have to say it sounds very “marketing” (and I’m in marketing), also pricey. Not sure if/how these networks address reachback to HQ.


November 16, 2015 3:03 pm
Reply to  ArmChairCivvy

Maybe I should have written “intra-squad radio”.

The days of bulky walkie-talkies are gone, by the way. AFAIK there are dedicated signallers with a backpack radio at company and rarely at platoon level (especially in terrain that’s troublesome for radio ranges), but squad leaders carry their own compact and lightweight radio nowadays.

November 16, 2015 3:51 pm
I’m aware of the concept but not of any operational deployments

@ Will, 10th Mountain Div. was the first one to have WIN-T in A-stan from 2013, the one I picked up and quoted from Jane’s write-up was running with one Finnish army bde in 2014 and they use Elbit digital radios, so the country of origin may or may not have configured something similar.

November 16, 2015 4:39 pm
Reply to  S O
The most important technological advance for the infantry in the last two decades was likely the squad radio for everyone.

This is analogous to the German army deciding to put a radio in every tank when pretty much every other nation scoffed at the need. But look at the capability it gave them! Blitzkrieg, which, while based on an original British idea, was only really made possible/efficacious by this introduction of comms into individual vehicles.

November 16, 2015 4:44 pm
Reply to  Chris

In the end the hapless soldier was stood bolt upright on a clump to get his antenna in clear line of sight to the HQ transmitter.

There was a documentary about the FIST system. I think it was Channel 4. I had the distinct impression that the program was not a priority for the newly established/rebranded QinetiQ at the time, and that it was more a proving ground for a number of the new intake to demonstrate they knew their stuff before being moved on to a real project. The incident described (standing up to receive the signal) was filmed by the documentary crew. Another notable problem was the enormous size of the headset. It was really big and flopped about at the slightest motion of the wearer’s head.

Compared to what DARPA were getting up to at that time, and since, the whole thing felt like amateur hour. Can’t believe it was ever seriously intended to produce a complete system. I suspect it was just a testbed for other things.

November 16, 2015 11:55 pm

Actually MSR, I do believe that happens. I was issued a 1st generation NVG (night vision goggles) to use once upon a time. It became well known in my unit that people wearing them would soon develop a fascination for their feet as that extremely heavy monster would pull your head down and strain your neck muscles. I’m sure electronics have made advances since then but any pre-production prototype is going to be like that old monstrosity. We had a “Future Soldier” program since 1998, it’s borderline acceptable now but in the past, the whole system weighed an unacceptable 25kg.

One very important change that any real time updating of soldier’s HUD is going to need is information flow. Any information gathered is currently not sent to the men but up the line instead to HQ where an In-Spec (Intelligence Specialist) would plot it out and update it into a BMS (Battlefield Management System) which is then piped back down to ground level. As you can guess, this is in no way real-time, what you get is more like an electronic map briefing than what you see in computer games. Enemy position indicators also do not move around, the digital map just displays unit symbology in a location. There is going to be a lot of work needed before anything seen on computer games is going to manifest itself in reality.

November 17, 2015 11:45 pm

The issue of head mounted displays to soldiers is an interesting area. Recently the display weight, resolution and ruggedness have reached a useful level, although it is still a way off being able to replicate the capacity of the human eye, both in terms of resolution and dynamic range. I recall reading about the Norwegian trial with the Oculus rift and how the ability to discern the surroundings beyond a few dozen metres was somewhat lacking. Given the field of view and the resolution this shouldn’t really be a surprise.
The value at present is in the ability to augment the operators vision rather than replace it. Sensor fusion seems to be very much of interest at the moment, although aligning the image with the eye would be challenging. is another company that may be of interest.