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Microsoft HoloLens proves to be a headache for US soldiers

Eyestrain, nausea not entirely dealt with, military brass remain committed to AR

Microsoft Corp's HoloLens mixed reality goggles need further refinement before they're ready for US soldiers, according to a Defense Department report summary.

The 79-page report, obtained by Bloomberg, on the US Army's pilot testing of HoloLens is designated "Controlled Unclassified Information" and has not been made public.

But a summary, by Nickolas Guertin, director of the Defense Department's Operation Test and Evaluation, is said to describe tests resulting in "mission-affecting physical impairments," specifically headaches, eyestrain, and nausea.

The summary indicates that more than 80 percent of soldiers who experienced discomfort with the customized version of Microsoft's headset showed symptoms within three hours. Bloomberg's account does not indicate what percentage of HoloLens testers overall experienced discomfort. The Register asked an Army spokesperson whether those figures were available but the statement we received did not address that request.

In March, 2021, the US Army awarded a $22 billion contract to build 120,000 custom HoloLens augmented/mixed reality headsets. According to Microsoft, the devices will implement the military's Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) to enable soldiers to see through smoke and around corners, to pull up holographic imagery for training, and to project 3D terrain maps on their field of vision.

The project has been plagued with delays to address technical concerns. Operational testing was scheduled for the fall of 2021 but was pushed back to May 2022, according to The Army Times. An April 22 audit report from the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General put further pressure on the project with the finding that the Army hadn't defined a minimally viable product in terms of what soldiers would accept.

"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 report said.

One reason soldiers might be wary of Microsoft's hardware is the potential for nausea and disorientation. A 2020 meta analysis of VR-induced sickness found VR participants had a "relatively high" mean Simulator Sickness Questionnaire (SSQ) score of 28.

SSQ is a framework developed for military flight simulators that scores people based on symptoms (e.g. fatigue, headache, eyestrain) associated with weighted scores.

"In general, higher scores on each scale indicate stronger perceptions of the underlying sickness symptoms and are therefore undesired," explains a 2020 paper [PDF] on SSQ scoring. "Based on a large sample of SSQ data gathered from military pilots, it is suggested that total scores can be associated with negligible (< 5), minimal (5 – 10), significant (10 – 15), and concerning (15 – 20) symptoms. A simulator resulting in total scores above 20 is considered "bad."

Certain activities like gaming produced higher SSQ scores (34) while others like scenic content (17) were better tolerated, according to the meta analysis. The amount of time exposed to VR also comes into play: A 2017 study of a virtual roller coaster environment found almost two-thirds of participants could not endure 14 minutes of exposure.

Augmented reality (AR), or mixed reality as Microsoft calls it, has a different effect because some of the real world gets through, diminishing the likelihood of disorientation. However, a 2020 study, "The Psychometrics of Cybersickness in Augmented Reality," looked at the difference between a tablet and a HoloLens for providing Tactical Combat Casualty Care – one of the reasons the Defense Department is interested in AR/VR – and found that Microsoft's headset can cause cybersickness too.

Using the HoloLens in three 30-minute sessions with similarly timed breaks in between, the study says, "elicited SSQ scores >20.1 but <27.9 over the duration of all [adverse physiological aftereffect] measurement periods, which puts the HoloLens in the 'medium' range for subjective symptomatology as compared to VR systems."

The "Psychometrics" report concludes that while research participants experienced moderate to medium eye and balance symptoms, more so than just using a tablet, the HoloLens "led to better performance outcomes" in the casualty care simulation. Thus, the report says, there's reason to develop protocols for using HoloLens (e.g. exposure limits) that help wearers overcome physiological symptoms.

Asked to comment on the Army's report summary, Microsoft offered some cheery boilerplate.

"Our close collaboration with the Army has enabled us to quickly build and iterate on the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) to develop a transformational platform that will deliver enhanced soldier safety and effectiveness," a Redmond spokesperson told The Register in an email. "We are moving forward with the production and delivery of the initial set of HoloLens-based devices to fulfill our commitment to bring this next generation technology to the US Army."

Brigadier General Christopher Schneider, head of PEO Soldier, the US Army's rapid prototyping and procurement program, told The Register in an emailed statement that the IVAS test has been going well and that development will continue.

"IVAS recently completed its Operational Test in accordance with its approved Test Plan," said Schneider. "The emerging results indicate that the program achieved success in most of the Army evaluation criteria."

"However, the results also identified areas where IVAS fell short and needs additional improvements, which the Army will address. Going forward, the Army plans to use flexibilities for rapid prototyping and rapid fielding provided by Congress to fix the problems we found and further develop IVAS in a rapid and innovative manner."

Schneider emphasized that the Army remains "committed to the IVAS program and the leap ahead capability it will provide for Soldiers to win on the battlefield." ®

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