Disruptive by Design: 5G-Enabled Augmented Reality Is Near

March 1, 2021
By Lt. Col. Ryan Kenny, USA

What would it take to deliver high quality augmented reality to the masses? Mobile devices packed with high computing power and both optical and LIDAR sensors in every hand? Check. Robust operating systems capable of overlaying 3D graphics in real environments? Check. Devices that enable high-definition rendering of digital images? Check. What’s missing? A compelling need to project information from offices and retail environments into homes and remote locations? The COVID-19 pandemic may have fixed that. So, what else is missing? Bandwidth! With 5G cellular communications entering mainstream markets, it may finally become a part of our daily lives—for real this time.

Augmented reality (AR) has been used for years, but most systems and applications have not seen large-scale commercial success due to their cost and complexity. However, increasingly, AR content can be viewed on mobile devices. As the Defense Department continues to invest in wearable AR technologies, now is the time for AR applications to emerge to meet the department’s needs. The following areas should be first in line for experimentation and investment.

Education and Training—Do as I Do. Augmented reality enables learners to gain a first-person perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of a master will enable learners to visualize better and process complex spatial reasoning and movement tasks. Whether a squad simulates a movement-to-contact drill by projecting holographic images, or a chef demonstrates how to slice veggies for a Yakisoba stir fry, AR technologies will enable new forms of immersive training environments.

Maintenance and Repair—Chief Everywhere. How many times has a maintenance lead reported that repairs were waiting for a field support representative to arrive? With AR systems connected to remote support, front line technicians can show remote technicians first-hand views. Correspondingly, those remote experts can then guide local crews through repair steps. Furthermore, as more systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, come with AR repair manuals, step-by-step AR projections on systems will lead technicians through common preventive maintenance and troubleshooting tasks.

Telemedicine—Democratized Triage. Whether on a ship at sea or deployed forward during a firefight, emergencies arise away from adequate medical expertise. Medical experts, like skilled mechanics, are in short demand. Augmented reality systems can empower first responders by connecting them to experts to advise them on triage and treatment. Moreover, these same technologies can push more sophisticated treatment further down the chain of command. Just as most of us have learned to search YouTube for how-to videos, the Defense Department could develop a series of medical how-to projections for the force to reference anytime, anywhere.

Remote Piloting—First Person Warfare. Last, but certainly not least in terms of fun, AR and virtual reality systems will enable all those unmanned systems to be remotely controlled by human pilots, alleviating concerns for some robotic systems operating independently. Unmanned systems are not only here to stay, but they also are likely to play a dramatic role in future combat. The value of using human pilots to operate these systems remotely, or at a minimum quickly gain a remote unmanned system’s first-person perspective, will become increasingly recognized. Furthermore, engineering to allow for manual override of unmanned systems through remote piloting may prove an inevitable safeguard.

As the military and the commercial world rapidly develop new AR technologies, a host of peripheral applications and services will emerge. Now is the time for those drafting operational needs statements to collaborate across services, branches and specialties to shape AR’s future within the Defense Department.

Lt. Col. Ryan Kenny, USA, created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.

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