US Army considers using augmented reality for mission planning

The US Army is pondering the use of augmented reality to assist with mission planning, with a research project currently underway to determine what benefits the technology could bring.

The research, which is currently being undertaken by members of the Cognitive Science Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), involves soldiers learning a mock mission route using a 3D model of a city. AR could prove a better tool than the traditional 2D maps soldiers currently use for mission planning.

“Our goal is to evaluate mobile AR as a promising candidate technology to improve mission-planning operations,” explained NSRDEC research psychologist Aaron Gardony.

“Soldiers are members of a team, but they are also multi-faceted individuals with unique preferences and aptitudes. For example, some may easily visualize three-dimensional environments from two-dimensional maps, but others may learn better using 3D imagery.”

Soldier or not, while some people can easily translate 2D renderings into 3D, for many it’s a challenge to visualise a flat plan as a fully fleshed out space, which is why AR could be very beneficial to day-to-day Army operations.

“In contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach 2D representations provide, we believe AR-based mission planning using interactive 3D maps and models could allow individuals to tailor their planning experience to their own preferences and those of their team members,” explained Gardony.

“Doing so could improve cognitive performance at both the individual and group level, leading to improved mission-planning outcomes and, ultimately, enhanced mission effectiveness.”

When viewing the model in AR, the soldiers can pan, rotate and zoom the city view, allowing them to ‘see’ the route in the manner that best suits them.

Images courtesy of Aaron Gardony, NSRDEC Cognitive Science Team, via the US Army

The researchers are trialling AR by tasking soldiers with learning the urban route before walking the real-life version from memory.

It is hoped that the researchers will be able to quantify any benefits that AR provides, and so make a case for the technology becoming officially adopted by the US Army for use in real-world missions.

“This study takes a novel step in evaluating AR for mission planning/route learning,” said Gardony.

“Positive results could provide a basis for future fielding of these technologies to improve mission planning and justify future research examining its impacts in other military contexts.”

AR finds a home: SwapBots could be the first augmented reality toy craze

For a technology with so much promise, augmented reality hasn’t exactly got off for the best start. After initially being the sole domain of advertisers, it has slowly crept into common use through the likes of Snapchat and Pokémon Go, but has so far failed to provide the experiences to make it central to our lives.

One area with the most potential, however, is toys. AR games are now a small but steady offering in the market, and with iPads and other touchscreen devices now providing a major source of entertainment to children, there is a clear potential for fun activities that connect the digital and real worlds.

But for AR to truly take the toy market by storm, it needs to be the subject of a major toy craze, and so far no product has come close.

SwapBots, however, could be the exception. In a sea of new toy ideas it stands out for one reason: it combines physical and digital play throughout its use, rather than the AR item being immediately set down and forgotten about after being scanned.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s causing quite the buzz among the toy industry, with serious interest from some major US retailers.

Each SwapBot set comes with a three-pack of bots and a supporting video game. There are a total of nine bots to collect, each with its own character realised in AR-suitable yet gorgeous illustrations, which can be scanned on a tablet or smartphone to turn them into fully fleshed out 3D characters.

Kids can then use these to play games, explore stories and do battle with each other, with content that having tried, I can confirm is genuinely fun to play, and which comes with a no in-app purchases guarantee.

But where it gets interesting is that each bot is made up of three totem-like parts, which fit together like Duplo, meaning their heads, bodies and legs can be swapped to create a host of different configurations: 729 in total.

This keeps the physical element firmly in the toy, and gives it far greater longevity than other AR offerings.

The idea behind this style of play is that it provides a far more developmentally beneficial way of interacting with touchscreen devices – an inevitability in modern childhood – and so assuages parental concerns about the proliferation of passive screen time.

It’s also priced at a level that kids can pay for with pocket money. SwapBot’s recently launched Kickstarter is offering a three-pack for £16 – with discounts for larger numbers – and it’s likely the bots won’t cost much more when they find themselves on retailer’s shelves.

Add the collectable nature of the bots – there are three packs at present, but the range is likely to expand in time – and the highly appealing and varied character designs, and it’s easy to see SwapBots becoming a go-to for parents looking to keep their little ones engaged.

Images courtesy of SwapBots

Given the artful blending of toy and AR design, it’s perhaps no surprise that behind SwapBots is Draw & Code, a Liverpool-based mixed reality company made up mostly of parents. The company has been making waves in mixed reality technologies for some years, producing a number of commercial projects including an AR art exhibition, numerous VR installations and a host of projection-mapped buildings.

SwapBots, however, is the first commercial product Draw & Code has produced, and it sees the company turn their expertise to their own needs as parents.

“SwapBots was conceived over a few drinks after exhibiting our augmented reality prototypes in Silicon Valley,” explained John Keefe, SwapBots co-founder and director of Draw & Code. “We wanted to do something radically different to the enterprise and health uses of the tech that proliferated at the time and interactive toys seemed like the perfect fit.”

It’s also enjoyed a fantastic pool of first-generation testers, with the Draw & Code team’s children providing vital feedback during the toy’s development.

Now SwapBots is ready for commercial production, the team are trying to get it into shops with a current tour of US tech shows. In doing so, they’ve generated some serious interest from US retailers, and with a Kickstarter campaign to show interest and get the toy into people’s hands, it’s quite possible the AR toy could become widely available in shops before long.