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DARPA wants AR glasses to help soldiers with complex tasks

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is developing a new system to assist military personnel in performing complex tasks. Perception-enabled task guidance (PTG) technology uses sensors to see and hear what the user sees and hears, guiding them through AI-generated instructions displayed in augmented reality (AR).

PTG combines sensors (a microphone and a head-mounted camera) with AI and AR headsets to integrate with the user’s environment. The idea is to help soldiers and other military personnel improve their skills, complete complicated tasks and perform them better. DARPA has narrowed its focus to three areas: battlefield medicine (such as untrained personnel who assist paramedics in the field), preservation (keeping and operating military equipment), and co-pilots (particularly helicopters).

However, DARPA’s training demos use something more mundane: cooking. dr Bruce Draper, the program’s manager, describes it as the ideal proxy job. “[Cooking is] a good example of a complex physical task that can be accomplished in many ways. There’s a lot of different objects, solids, liquids, things changing states, so visually it’s quite complex. There is specialized terminology, there is specialized equipment, and there are many different ways this can be accomplished. So it’s a really good practice area.” The team believes PTG will eventually have applications in medical education and assess the competence of medical professionals and other healthcare providers.

First person perspective of person pouring liquid from a plastic jug into a measuring cup.  AR instructions to “Pour 12 ounces of water into a liquid measuring cup” are overlaid on their field of view.

First person perspective of person pouring liquid from a plastic jug into a measuring cup. AR instructions “Pour 12 ounces of water into a liquid measuring cup” are overlaid in their field of view.

The staff demonstrating the technology appears to be using a variant of Microsoft HoloLens. The government recently halted plans to buy more “AR combat goggles” from Microsoft, instead approving $40 million for the company to develop a new version. The reversal came after the current version was found to be causing problems such as headaches, eyestrain, and nausea.

DARPA is the Department of Defense’s “mad science” division. Founded in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower to develop cutting-edge technology for the United States, many of the agency’s projects have morphed into non-military products, including GPS, speech recognition, self-driving cars, and robotics. Oh, and a smaller technology called “the Internet” also originated in DARPA’s late 1960’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) program. It’s easy to imagine some form of PTG eventually following its lead into our daily lives.

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