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Augmented Reality's Killer App: Killing People

Google Glass-style heads-up displays are already on their way to the battlefield.

Augmented Reality's Killer App: Killing People

This isn’t a still from a video game. It’s the actual Gladius helmet-mounted AR system.

As we fret over whether or not Google can manage to make frames that complement our bone structure, Google Glass–style displays are already becoming a reality for one group of users: soldiers. The German military recently ordered its second batch of something called the Gladius soldier system, a high-tech kit that networks small groups of infantrymen and gives individual soldiers real-time mission information on a helmet-mounted display. If it sounds a little bit like Halo, that’s because it is. And it will be on the ground in Afghanistan as early as this summer.

Rheinmetall Defence, the company that makes the Gladius, calls it "the most advanced system of its kind," and its most noteworthy offering is serious, next-gen battlefield visuals. Over at Slate, Jason Bittel calls it "the closest thing to a real-life 'heads-up display’ we’ve ever seen—like Google Glass for combat."

Anchored by a helmet mounted display (which doubles as night vision and augmented reality), a soldier can access maps, waypoints, "Blue Force Tracking" (good guys), and "Enemy Threat Reporting" and "Red Force Visualization" (bad guys). And you just know the next version will have all sorts of drone integration—bringing the eye in the sky into the helmet. (The Brits are already using miniature surveillance helicopters.)

Rheinmetall designed the system to keep 10-man units in constant communication with one another, in addition to incorporating support vehicles and real-time updates from external intelligence. They call this a "network-enabled operational loop," and it’s the gamer’s equivalent of looking at the other guy’s screen.

So not only will the system overlay a soldier’s vision with relevant data but also pipe positional data in from nine of his buddies, instantly and automatically. It facilitates a sort of mind-meld for that unit of 10, and serves it all up on an augmented reality display.

And while the soldiers probably won’t care what the hell those helmet-mounted system looks like, they will probably agree with future Google Glass users on one score: The less bulky these things can get, the better. And, unsurprisingly, researchers are already thinking about a near-future where we can ditch the physical displays altogether. Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense signed a contract with a company called Innovega, whose special contact lenses would allow soldiers to focus on a heads-up display projected directly onto their eyeball while still focusing on the real world behind it at the same time. That’s not just supplementing our vision, it’s hacking it to get around one of its most fundamental limitations.

So, yes, the future of military tech is indeed crazy. But you have to figure that a pair or two of those contacts are floating around somewhere over on the Google campus in Mountain View, too.

Read more about the Gladius over at Slate.