The Norwegian army is experimenting with cheap and accessible consumer technology for military applications — including Oculus Rift headsets, better known for their use in immersive gaming.
Recently, the country's military demonstrated a prototype virtual reality (VR) system for drivers of armoured vehicles, which gives a full 360-degree view around the tank, even when all its hatches are closed.
The system is based on standard off-the-shelf PCs and Oculus Rift VR goggles, combined to provide the tank driver with a complete spherical view around the tank — as if the vehicle was completely transparent. The system allows the tank driver to be more independent, freeing the tank commander's resources to concentrate on battle management and situational awareness.
No blind spots
"I had been thinking about this for a long time — the idea was born back in 2011," Major Ola Odden of Combat Lab, a concept development and experimentation unit at the Norwegian army's Land Warfare Centre, told ZDNet.
"The basic idea was that the driver should be able to drive in all directions, and be independent of any detailed instructions from the tank commander. To do that, the driver must be able to see everything around the vehicle, and that's not possible today. Conventional solutions for this switch between cameras around the tank, and it is very hard to avoid blind spots that way."
The background for the ambition of enabling a tank driver to handle their vehicle more independently is that experience shows that the tank commander can't optimally make the best use of a battle management system (BMS) when engaged with an enemy if they're too busy directing the driver and gunner, meaning they don't have time to get the overview a BMS can provide.
"By making the gunner and driver able to do their tasks more independently, we're creating the premise for true network-enabled capabilities. This provides a common, shared and superior situation awareness, which makes us able to defeat the enemy," Odden said.
"I read a story in the local newspaper about a completely different camera solution from a local technology startup called Making View, and had a meeting with them. We signed a development contract with them in April 2013, and this early prototype is what we've got so far."
To provide the tank driver with a complete 360 view around the tank, the vehicle is equipped with cameras on all four sides. Each of these cameras has a 185-degree field of view, which between them provide a complete spherical view for the driver.
Video streams from each of the cameras are combined and processed before being delivered to the driver's Rift goggles, where the tilt and pan of the images will be controlled by the driver's head movements.
This enables the driver to, for instance, park the tank with centimetre precision, as he can see the tank's tracks by looking down.
"The reasoning behind using the goggles instead of monitors is that it is very hard to present a good enough full 360-degree view on multiple screens," Odden said "In addition, there is no physical space for monitors in the tank, so we wanted to work with the goggles instead.
"As we're using cameras with extremely wide angles, the picture is distorted as it's being taken. The software in the system corrects for this before the images are delivered to the driver."
A stereo camera is mounted in the front of the vehicle, with the aiming of giving the driver a 3D representation of the environment ahead. A conventional single-camera product gives a picture that's too flat for precise driving across a more complex terrain, and the ambition is to give him a true 3D VR representation of what's ahead of the tank.
But this has not succeeded yet.
"We have not verified that the 3D part works yet, the resolution and picture quality in the current goggles is not good enough," Odden said. "Beyond five to 10 metres ahead of the vehicle the picture starts to get fuzzy, and not good enough to properly navigate the tank.
"The biggest deterioration happens in the goggles themselves, so we're awaiting improved hardware with increased resolution in order to solve this issue. We know there's new hardware under development, and we're expecting big progress on this area in the coming years."
Nevertheless, Major Odden sounds very pleased with what the project has achieved already, and he's eager for more funding and upgrades to the system's components, in order to help the product become a viable resource for the Norwegian army.
"What we've got now is a concept demonstration — it's not nearly an operative system for general use in the army," he said. "The picture quality needs to improve, and all of the components need to get ruggedised before we're close to a deployable solution. However, we've got a complete view around the tank with no blind spots, and that's very good.
"To my knowledge there are no complete systems with full spherical view anywhere. There are some VR goggles with OLED screens and full HD resolution on the market, but they cost around $35,000 — that's 100 times more than our solution.
"The Norwegian defence budget would never allow a widespread deployment of such costly technology, so we want to continue the development based on commercially available consumer products. We think that is the smart choice, as product development is much faster in the consumer market, compared to the military market.
"After we've got the functionality we want, there will be a period where the equipment is ruggedised to our needs. We're talking operating temperatures from 47 degrees below zero to 70 degrees above, in a potentially dusty and moist environment. This is a huge cost driver. Because of these specifications, it always take a lot of time to complete a military development project."
It is also necessary to ensure that the system works in all situations. With a 55-ton battle tank on the move, it is crucial that the driver gets a true picture of the terrain around them.
"We had a strange glitch on the training field once," Odden said. "One of the cameras had crashed without us knowing it, so when the driver looked to his left side, he saw the inside wall of the garage he'd left a couple of hours ago.
"It demonstrated that it is a virtual world we're presenting in this system, and we have to make absolutely sure that such errors never happens in the real world. That could easily put both people on the ground, and the tank itself, in a dangerous situation.
"This shows that we're still in a development phase, where we've been working in a very controlled environment. This is definitely not an operational system yet."