November 30, 2018
The U.S. Army has awarded a $480 million contract to Microsoft to supply augmented reality system prototypes that it can deploy for training and combat missions. If successful, the contract could lead to Microsoft providing 100,000 headsets, which the Army says will be intended to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.” The U.S. Army and Israel Defense Forces have already used Microsoft’s HoloLens in training, but using it in live combat would be a new step.
Bloomberg reports that Microsoft stated that, “augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions,” adding that, “this new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area.”
HoloLens is considered “one of the leading consumer-grade headsets,” and in a video made for the European Patent Office, Microsoft said it has sold “about 50,000 devices.” With its potential purchase of 100,000 headsets, the U.S. Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) “immediately becomes one of Microsoft’s most important HoloLens consumers.”
Microsoft said the Army version of HoloLens will differ from its consumer-facing device (above) by adding the features requesting by the Army: night vision and thermal sensing, the ability to measure vital signs (breathing, readiness), concussion monitoring and hearing protection. The contract also stipulates that Microsoft will “deliver 2,500 headsets within two years, and exhibit the capacity for full-scale production.”
The contract did go through a bidding process, which enabled Magic Leap to also pursue it. At an early August meeting, the Army met with “25 companies interested in participating in some way, including Booz Allen Hamilton Holding, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.”
Cooperating with the U.S. military and law enforcement has become more fraught in the last year, with employees at Google and Amazon, “pushing back against government contracts.” Microsoft employees criticized a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and, in a blog post in October, employees “urged the company not to bid on a multi-billion dollar U.S. military cloud contract,” stating they didn’t believe that what they build should be used for waging war.
Microsoft president/chief legal officer Brad Smith later said that, “the company would continue to sell software to the U.S. military” although employees “with ethical qualms with projects would be allowed to move to other work within the company.”
“We’ve appreciated that no military in the world wants to wake up to discover that machines have started a war,” he wrote. “But we can’t expect these new developments to be addressed wisely if the people in the tech sector who know the most about technology withdraw from the conversation.”