A Marine Captain and a BAE contractor with DARPA's prototype ULTRA-Vis helmet display.

A Marine Captain and a BAE contractor with DARPA’s prototype ULTRA-Vis helmet display.

PENTAGON: After 20 years of unsuccessful efforts to produce a wearable display to provide foot troops digital data without blocking their view of the real world around them, DARPA has invented one called ULTRA-Vis.

“The prototype was completed within the past several months. The breakthrough [was] the holographic wave guide” program manager Yiftach Eisenberg told me as he displayed an admittedly clunky demonstration model at this afternoon’s “DARPA Demo Day” in the Pentagon courtyard.

Yes, he said “holographic,” but no, the wearer doesn’t see a three-dimensional image hovering in front of him like Princess Leia in Star Wars asking Obi Wan for help. The holographic wave guide is a system of channels etched into high-tech coatings on the glass. Those channels convey light from a 0.3-lb projector mounted on the side of your helmet — the prototype is awkwardly unbalanced — to the display over your eye.

That makes it possible to superimpose data directly over your natural field of vision, without requiring you to look up at an eye-straining angle as with Google Glass or look down at a smartphone display as with the Army’s Nett Warrior system. Nor does the display block your field of vision like the ill-fated monocle display on the Army’s earlier Land Warrior.

Instead, you get an augmented reality effect where the data you desire — say, the direction to the nearest friendly unit or your objective — floats over the landscape. The indicators move to stay superimposed over the correct place in the real world as you turn your head, because the helmet-mounted device tracks the direction you’re looking as well as where you are. If there are friendly forces on the other side of the hill, their icon will stay over that hill. A flattened ring on the bottom of the display gives a compressed 360-degree view so you can see if what you’re looking for is currently behind you. (Fighter pilots have long had such “heads-up displays,” but it’s a lot harder to implement in something compact enough to wear).

A knob on the back of the projector lets you adjust what data you’re seeing, with options you can customize before the mission (but not during it). “You can decide how much information or how little,” said Eisenberg, from, “I want to see all the friendly forces within five kilometers” to “I want to see all friendly forces within 100 kilometers.”

“The technology is agnostic” about what data it displays, Eisenberg said: As long as you have geographical coordinates, you can see it superimposed on your environment. The display can even display digital pictures and video — for example, surveillance imagery from a drone — although I found those harder to see.

“We’ve taken it to a prototype stage,” Eisenberg emphasized. He doesn’t expect anyone to go to war wearing something exactly like the kit he showed me today. His program is working with the individual armed services to figure out the “refinements” they’d require to incorporate the technology in their future systems. To start with, you don’t want to crack the display the first time you hit the dirt. “There certainly needs to be more work to ruggedize the technology,” he told me. “That’s the next step.”


  • Gary Church

    Wow. Could do some stuff with that. Except…..half the time it is dark.
    How does it integrate with night vision gear?

    Infantry tech has gone from the old spyglass to binoculars to parachute flares to active infra red to starlight generations and now we have the present state of the art GPNVG with 4 scopes for panoramic view. Along with these the thermal weapon sights coming on line mean that this system does not look so awesome; can you see at night or through smoke with it? Maybe great for an officer trying to look cool as he stands by his hummer thinking about how to spend the rest of the day doing nothing.

    Actually it probably would be really useful in daylight ops but it is more weight. That is the most serious problem; not information. These guys already have enough stuff to pack around.

    • Mike

      Now, that is an old familiar sight…. Imagine what it is like when all those guys begin barfing in really rough weather… :( i always preferred our much smaller planes or hellicopteers with only 12 guys… :)

      • Gary Church

        You ever break any bones Mike? My old commo Sgt was in the 82nd and he had a picture of 3 guys with berets and wings with casts and on crutches in formation and a humorous caption. I forgot what it said. Of course it is funny only to a certain point. It is dangerous. And dangerous as hell on an overcast no moon night.

        There is an old Coast Guard aviator story about “the carolina moon.” The carolina moon was a super powerful searchlight they mounted onto a long cargo pallet and rolled into the back of a C-130. It was supposed to turn night into day for boats doing searches by orbiting high up and shining the light sideways out the ramp and down onto the ocean. The testing was down out of Elizabeth City North Carolina so it’s nickname was the carolina moon. Unfortunately the generator had to be small and light to fit in the plane and also put out a huge amount of power. The whole rig tended to overheat and catch on fire. This happened more than once and they finally cancelled the program. It worked out that parachute flares were more practical.

        The drill was to use fire extinguishers if the carolina moon caught on fire but if it got out of control the next step in the emergency procedure was to jettison the entire rig out the back of the plane in flight. One night during a test over the ocean the carolina moon caught on fire and it was alot of flame so the aircrew went straight to jettison but it hung up and jammed on the rails. The crew finally put the fire out and after it was over they found the loadmaster had mistakenly attached his gunners belt to the searchlight instead of the plane. The whole time he and the others had been trying to push it out he had been hooked to it.

      • Gary Church

        I just read your other comment about your hip injury so never mind the next reply:)

        Here is that new T-11 parachute I heard about so many years ago. Guess it has made it into service and claims a 50 percent reduction in jump injuries. Don’t know much else about it though. I just can’t keep up on all the new stuff nowadays.

    • Larry A. Altersitz

      Inside of a can of Whoopass….

      • Gary Church

        ALL AMERICAN! Or as us non-82nd lesser beings used to say:
        all A-holes:)

        We used to make jokes about the 101st also; called them screaming chickens. Can’t do that anymore and if I ever hear anyone doing it I will get in their face. 101 lost a lot of people.

    • http://www.ara.com/arc4 TheJim

      Here’s a live video looking through an NVG:


      • Gary Church

        Ahhh. It is software. It will work with NVGs. That is actually pretty awesome.

    • Gary Church

      Got to love’m, egos and all.

  • ycplum

    I suspect there is a learning curve to mentally incorporate and utilize the visual data. We probably need to start early by incorporating this system in a video game. lol

  • Gary Church

    This is pretty awesome stuff when you think about it being displayed in NVG’s or in a thermal weapon sight. I feel sorry for anyone that messes with our infantry.

  • Ineluctable

    What if you are left handed or left eye dominant?