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US Army may be about to 'waste' up to $22b on Microsoft HoloLens
Will soldiers actually use these goggles? Asking for a watchdog
Updated The US Army could end up wasting much as $22 billion in taxpayer cash if soldiers aren't actually interested in using, or able to use as intended, the Microsoft HoloLens headsets it said it would purchase, a government watchdog has warned.
In 2018, the American military splashed $480 million on 100,000 prototype augmented-reality goggles from Redmond to see how they could help soldiers train for and fight in combat. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) project was expanded when the Army decided it wanted the Windows giant to make custom, battle-ready AR headsets in a ten-year deal worth up to $22 billion.
The project was delayed and is reportedly scheduled to roll out some time this year. But the US Dept of Defense's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) cast some doubt on whether it was worth it at all.
"Procuring IVAS without attaining user acceptance could result in wasting up to $21.88 billion in taxpayer funds to field a system that soldiers may not want to use or use as intended," the Pentagon oversight body wrote in an audit [PDF] report this month.
In other words, the Army hasn't yet fully determined if or how service members will find these HoloLens headsets valuable in the field. Although the heavily redacted report did not reveal soldiers' responses to the prototype testing, it said feedback from surveys showed "both positive and negative user acceptance."
The Army plans to purchase 121,500 IVAS units from Microsoft while admitting that "if soldiers do not love IVAS and do not find it greatly enhances accomplishing the mission, then soldiers will not use it," the report disclosed.
A Microsoft spokesperson told The Register in a statement: "Our focus continues to be on developing IVAS to be a transformational platform that will deliver enhanced soldier safety and effectiveness."
In a rebuttal to the OIG's audit, Douglas Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said the $21.88 billion was double what the military would likely at most spend, and was – in a way – a worst-case scenario figure.
"This is a contract ceiling that includes all possible hardware, components, and services over a ten-year period at the worst possible pricing structure. Less than half of this total is possible for the US Army. This total includes all possible sales to all sister services, foreign military sales, and all maximized service contracts," he wrote.
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Bush insisted the Army has a policy to eventually test and evaluate whether or not personnel will use equipment such as Microsoft's AR techno-specs. He also disagreed that immediate user acceptance was necessary for determining whether the IVAS program would be worthwhile, and pointed out soldiers did not like night-vision goggles when they were introduced in the 1970s. But over time, they became more experienced with the technology and developed tactics around it. Now, they are widely adopted by the Army. In other words: it's too early to tell for sure whether soldiers will use the AR technology or find it useful, according to Bush.
Feedback is also subjective, Bush noted. Acceptance was influenced by a soldier's level of fatigue, weather conditions, and familiarity with the tech.
However, "Army officials should have established user acceptance measurements at the beginning of the program to ensure that user needs were met," the OIG argued.
"While we agree there is inherent tension between user acceptance and opportunity, having an established measurement or goal enables officials to know that close combat forces accept, want to use, and can function effectively with IVAS."
In short: before you blow up billions on a project like this, do some more investigating. The US Army did not immediately respond to The Register's request for further comment. ®
Updated to add
"On March 26, 2021, the US Army awarded a fixed price production agreement to Microsoft for the production of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS)," a military spokesperson told The Register.
"The total potential period of performance is ten years (five year base and five year option), with a potential agreement ceiling of $21.88bn. To date, the Army has only utilized about 2 percent of the $21.88B ceiling."