NRL VR Lab Finding New Ways to Enhance Flow of Information

5/1/2001 - 1-01r
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Computer scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory's Virtual Reality (VR) Lab are exploring ways to provide information to individual warfighters without distracting them from the operating environment (i.e., keeping the warfighters' hands free and their view on the real-world) as well as to enhance the flow of information between tactical command centers and personnel in the field. Focusing on operations in urban areas, where there are many unique and challenging conditions, the researchers have developed a wearable 3-D system that gives users in the field real-time information about their environment.

The system, called the Battlefield Augmented Reality System (BARS), provides users with a "heads-up" display. The user wears a see-through head-mounted display through which the user sees the real world. Computer generated graphics and text are overlaid atop the real world in the display. From the user's point of view, these graphics seem to be aligned directly with objects in the environment. For example, a user might see a computer-generated "signpost" which appears to be attached to the side of a building. As the user turns their head, the label will remain fixed to the side of the building.

Why concentrate on urban environments? "Because city terrain is complex and presents serious challenges to command-and-control systems," says Dr. Lawrence Rosenblum, director of the NRL VR Lab. Buildings above street level, especially high-rise buildings, can conceal threats such as snipers. Below street level, networks of sewers and tunnels may hold other risks. Cityscapes also make it difficult to plan and coordinate group activities. It is nearly impossible for all members of a team to be in direct line of sight of one another when navigating narrow or crowded streets.

Furthermore, notes the VR Lab's Dr. Simon Julier, the urban environment is highly dynamic and constantly changing. Dangers, such as the positions of snipers, can change continuously. And, the structure of the environment itself can evolve. For example, damaged buildings can fill a street with rubble, making a once-safe route impassable and once-familiar terrain unrecognizable.

Why use augmented reality? Unlike other approaches (such as those which use handheld electronic maps), users wearing an augmented reality system does not have to take their attention away from the environment itself where threats might suddenly appear. Furthermore, augmented reality automatically places the graphics directly on top of the real-world environment.

BARS consists of two main components: the Wearable Augmented Reality System (WARS) and the 3-D Interactive Command Environment (3DICE). WARS is the unit worn by the user in the field. It is a self-contained backpack system, which includes the wearable computer, tracking system, see-through head-mounted display, interaction devices and a transceiver for wireless communication. The WARS users receive reports and orders from the 3DICE, and can enter simple situational reports simply by speaking, gesturing, or using a personal digital assistant.

Strategic planners in the 3DICE might be hundreds or thousands of miles from the area of action. Using information received from the WARS users and other sensor systems, the command constructs a tactical picture of the environment. On the basis of this tactical picture and input from other decision support tools, commands are sent to users in the field.

Constructing the BARS system poses both software and hardware challenges to the researchers. Despite the availability of powerful laptops and personal digital assistants, there is no computer currently available that meets the physical size requirement and has the capability of rendering 3D stereo images. Furthermore, say the researchers, because many of today's systems are self-contained consumer products, they cannot be extended through the addition of extra hardware. Several mobile computers under development are still unnecessarily large and heavy, but current advancements in GPS, sensor and computing technologies will solve these problems shortly.

The BARS system is being developed in collaboration with Columbia University. NRL research is focusing on algorithms and system integration, including such issues as tracking and calibration, information filtering, display, usability, and augmented reality (AR) system architectures. NRL is considering what information should be displayed (e.g., which buildings should have their labels displayed) and on precise registration (the alignment of the graphics with the real world). Researchers at Columbia are focusing on AR architecture issues and on methods to control how information will be displayed . For example, if there are labels that name five different buildings, how do should those labels be placed so that they are in a convenient location on the display and do not overlap one another?

Augmented reality, says Julier, has the potential to fundamentally revolutionize the way in which data is delivered to warfighters, disaster management teams, hostage rescue teams and any other group in which complicated, spatial data must be presented to a user in an environment. Furthermore, it offers great potential as an aid to training individuals through allowing a user to interact with a virtual simulation while in a real environment. However, there are many research issues that are yet to be overcome. These range from hardware (such as the development of compact and robust tracking systems) to user interface design issues (what information will be shown to the user and how?). As a related issue, the researchers need to consider how the users will have to be trained to effectively use the new forms of information.

To date, BARS focus is a research and development system that is fully operational within NRL. It is expected that BARS, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research, will be ready for field-testing the system by 2004.

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