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US blocks $400m Army HoloLens orders, Microsoft left with a tenth for R&D

Nausea and headaches do not a fit fighting force make, so back to the lab for version 1.2

Congress is putting its foot down on funding the US Army's experiments with Microsoft HoloLens headsets, eliminating program funding in fiscal year 2023 for all but research into newer, less nauseating hardware.

The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) is a HoloLens-derived piece of military augmented-reality equipment that would ideally provide improved sight in low-visibility, a heads-up display, and maps, but it has yet to make it out of the test phase.

IVAS has suffered through delays, and a Pentagon report late last year indicated most soldiers who tested the hardware were afflicted with "mission-affecting physical impairments," such as headaches, eyestrain and nausea. 

Now, a defense appropriations summary [PDF] released with passage of Congress' $1.7 trillion FY 23 omnibus spending bill reveals the IVAS program is not getting the $400 million in funding top brass wanted, with $360m blocked by lawmakers and the remaining $40m shifted toward building a better headset, specifically version 1.2.

That $400m would buy the military as many as 6,900 HoloLenses from the Windows giant. Now Congress has rejected that budget request.

The US Army said last week that it awarded a task order to Microsoft "to develop the 1.2 variant of the [IVAS]" on December 20, a few days prior to congressional passage of the bill. The close timing may reflect Congress' line item reassignment, though The Register can't be sure that's the case since the Army has yet to answer our emails. 

This is all another step in the long journey America's Army has taken with Microsoft on HoloLens, beginning in March 2021 with an order for IVAS production. The branch added that "the Army envisioned improving the system through an iterative process, and this task order will provide improvements based on completed test events."

In total, the Army has wanted to blow as much as $22 billion over 10 years on the program, and said it has only spent around two percent of that total. The aforementioned $40m for development is joined by another $16.5m listed as a "program increase" for the IVAS project in FY 2023.

According to the Army, fielding of IVAS will begin incrementally in September, although it's unlikely that means anything more than another round of trials, as "delivery orders for IVAS 1.2 production systems will be placed after qualification and operational testing," the Army said. 

Microsoft, for its part, appears unconcerned based on what a spokesperson told us. "The regular cadence of building and testing IVAS is a critical part of the development process. Ultimately, this cadence will help us refine and improve the technology to ensure it brings unparalleled protection and capabilities to America’s Soldiers," a spokesperson told The Register.

IVAS 1.2 will include "a new form factor to address human systems integration," which the Army said will include addressing "physiological impacts identified during testing." Those changes will include a lower profile heads-up display and counterweighting to improve comfort, as well as software improvements "for increased reliability and reduced power demand."

Still unclear, however, is whether the average rank-and-file Private will want to wear the thing [PDF] in the first place. ®

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