Microsoft’s HoloLens, often used for virtual and augmented reality-enhanced battle games, is finding its way onto the actual battlefield.
The Ukrainian company LimpidArmor has created a “Circular Review System” for armored vehicles, consisting of helmets with integrated Microsoft HoloLens glasses so soldiers can see their surroundings without leaving their tanks—and deploy weapons from the relative safety of inside a tank. The 360-degree view extends over 300 meters.
Ukraine’s army has agreed to trial this technology—the device’s debut on a real battlefield. In August, the Israeli army bagged two Hololens devices to train soldiers and medics for different scenarios that could crop up during service.
Channeling first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, the augmented reality headset is able to overlay incoming feeds from cameras fitted outside the vehicles with labels highlighting “allies” and marking “enemies” in real time. The company’s software can also tailor the system to command drones, “locking onto targets through the headset,” according to Inverse.
Another VR headset, a version of LimpidArmor’s, is already in military use: the F-35 fighter jet’s $400,000 helmet, weighing up to five pounds, combines noise-canceling headphones, night vision, a forehead-mounted computer, and a projector to display similar live video on its clear visor. But compared with that device, the $3,000 HoloLens is a steal.
“[The technology] would give us the best of both worlds: It would take the human warfighter out of harm’s way, but it would also give robotic systems the sophistication of human judgment,” Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, told Quartz in an interview.
On the other hand, augmented reality’s use in battle poses some ethical concerns: Would fighters become desensitized to violence, as gamers are, and as a result make less empathetic decisions? Scholars and humanitarian groups argue that violent video and computer games often allow players to commit international law violations like “shooting wounded prisoners, torturing detainees or using prohibited chemical weapons to defeat an enemy force—with no negative consequences,” the Washington Times reported.
Tracking and aiming at real opponents with VR from inside a tank could fuel similar dissociation and desensitization, Lin says. As with drone warfare, removing soldiers from the direct action could ”decrease the costs and political barriers to seeking military solutions,” said Lin. “Emerging technologies could make war easier to choose.”
So far, Microsoft’s virtual reality headset has primarily been used in entertainment and design. But the company can’t fully control what its technology is used for. Any third-party vendor can load software of their choice onto the HoloLens Development Edition.
“Given this unprecedented link between military and civilian technologies, it would be difficult for, say, Microsoft to tell the government that it could not use its operating system or software for military operations,” Lin said. Since the technology is basically a blank slate, Microsoft can’t fully control what it’s used for—especially in cases like this, where the army wasn’t even the direct buyer. Microsoft did not respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.
Lin argues that general military operations are fair game, but says vendors should have the right to limit how their technology is used when it comes to an armed attack. Tesla announced that its customers may not earn money as Uber or Lyft drivers by using the car-maker’s self-driving feature, for example. Microsoft could, in theory, add similar clauses for use by armed forces.