The army is testing AR goggles for dogs

The US military is working on new ways for soldiers and their dogs to communicate. AR seems to hold a lot of promise.

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An often-heard prediction is that augmented reality (AR) could one day become a central tool in our everyday work and play – but it turns out that the technology might not be only suited for humans. 

The US military has unveiled a new project in partnership with Seattle-based company Command Sight, to fit working dogs with AR goggles that would enable soldiers to give orders to the animal at a distance.

Military dogs intervene in tactical operations, patrol, detection and specialized searches. Oftentimes, they can find themselves scouting dangerous areas, looking for explosive devices or materials, for example. 

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Soldiers typically guide the dogs in their mission through hand signals and laser pointers, meaning that the instructor has to be physically near the animal, sometimes within unsafe distance from a potential hazard. 

Command Sight, which specializes in bridging human and animal communication, has developed AR devices that can be worn by the dogs, through which human handlers can provide visual clues to direct the animal to a specific spot. The goggles also let the soldier follow everything that the dog is seeing in real time.

Stephen Lee, senior scientist at the Army Research Office (ARO), which manages the initiative, said: "Augmented reality works differently for dogs than for humans. AR will be used to provide dogs with commands and cues; it's not for the dog to interact with it like a human does. This new technology offers us a critical tool to better communicate with military working dogs."

As scientists gather a better understanding of canine vision and cognition, the tool will improve, according to the US military, while keeping more human soldiers safe during risky operations. 

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Command Sight has developed AR devices that can be worn by the dogs, through which human handlers can provide visual clues to direct the animal to a specific spot.  

Image: Command Sight

Each pair of goggles will be specifically designed to fit each dog based on a 3D scan that will provide data to understand where to place optics and electrical components. 

The system will then be fitted onto goggles that military dogs are already used to wearing when working in difficult conditions or for aerial deployments. This will allow for faster adoption for both the animals and their instructors, according to the research team. 

Previous attempts to enable communication at a distance between military dogs and soldiers have involved cameras and walkie-talkies placed on the animal. Audio commands, however, have proven to be more confusing for the dogs; while the cameras, placed on the back of the dog, haven't been as effective as hoped for.

Command Sight's technology could, therefore, provide a viable alternative to current methods.

"Even without the augmented reality, this technology provides one of the best camera systems for military working dogs," said Lee. "Now, cameras are generally placed on a dog's back, but by putting the camera in the goggles, the handler can see exactly what the dogs sees and it eliminates the bounce that comes from placing the camera on the dog's back."

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Although Command Sight started working on the technology three years ago, there is still a lot of scope for improvement. 

Testing the tool on his own rottweiler, Mater, the company's founder A.J. Peper found that the dog's ability to incorporate general training into an AR device has been very encouraging. Nevertheless, according to Peper, there is still much to learn, not least about canine cognition, before the technology is ready for fully fledged deployment.

"We are still in the beginning research stages of applying this technology to dogs, but the results from our initial research are extremely promising," Peper said. "We still have a way to go from a basic science and development perspective before it will be ready for the wear and tear our military dogs will place on the units."

On a technical level, the next stage of development will focus on producing a wireless product, to evolve the current wired prototype that requires keeping the dog on a leash. For the next couple of years, Command Sight will be working with the US Navy's Special Forces to get user feedback before kicking off the manufacturing of the technology.