U.S. Army Develops Augmented Reality Goggles for Military Dogs

  • Keeping dogs safer while improving our understanding of them? Funding well spent!

Dogs are good critters. We’ve covered it several times, but it could always stand to be repeated.

From sniffing out coronavirus infections to helping the differently abled, or just providing good old-fashioned company, dogs carry out a whole slew of valuable services. In some places, China for example, dogs are so vital that people are considering even cloning methods to have best canines for the jobs.

But it’s not like we in the Western countries don’t price our dogs. Case in point, working dogs in the U.S. military are revered to the point that some of them even get full military funerals should they fall in the line of duty.

According to the U.S. Army, the serving dogs perform admirably in duties like mine clearing, scouting areas for explosives and hazardous materials, and aiding in rescue operations. However, there is one, fairly huge obstacle in having dogs in the military.

That is, dogs don’t exactly understand speech. While a dog can be trained to obey commands to an astounding degree, they aren’t exactly able to process sudden changes in plans like a human soldier would.

“Giving dogs the necessary commands to perform [their] missions can put soldiers in harm’s way,” U.S. Army said in a statement. And that’s, of course, not even mentioning the danger to the dogs.

Now, the Army is looking to improve on the situation. To do that, they’re looking to help the dogs tap into augmented reality.

Lt. CyberDog, reporting for duty, sir.

Point out the location of the treats on my HUD, sir.

The Augmented What Now?

But what exactly is augmented reality and what does it have to do with dogs? Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

Augmented reality, or AR, is currently one of the biggest technology trends. Whether it ends up being a fad remains to be seen, but for the time being tech companies are all about it.

Essentially, AR is the real-life environment (that’s the reality part), that has been overlaid with digital elements (or augmented). Of course, you will need some kind of a device to look through to see the virtual augmentations.

But wait, we all have such a digital device in our pockets – a smartphone. And on many phones you can still find perhaps the most popular implementation of AR of all time, namely the Pokemon Go game that took the world by storm. At least briefly.

There’s much more to AR than games, though. According to the Franklin Institute, it can be used to help neurosurgeons with 3D projections during an operation, or to provide better navigation by projecting instructions directly onto the road.

It might sound futuristic, but AR is quickly becoming every day technology. There’s a good chance you’ve already used it and never even realized.

Identifying the Pain Point

Let’s get back to the dogs, then. The U.S. Army has begun exploring the possibilities of AR in military dog operations.

The research is already bearing fruit. As a result of a project managed by the Army Research Office (ARO), a company called Command Sight has produced a device the brings AR to the Army’s dogs and their handlers.

But it’s not just the human soldiers who will be enhanced with technology. The dogs, too, will get their share, in the form AR goggles designed specifically for canine users.

Command Sight was launched in 2017 by Dr. A.J. Peper. Speaking with military officials, he concluded that improving communication between the military dog and its handler was key to boosting the working dogs’ performance.

As a result of this revelation, Command Sight produced its first prototype AR goggles for military working dogs.

“The system could fundamentally change how military canines are deployed in the future,” Peper said.

My Eyes! The Goggles Do Something!

The goggles project a visual indicator into the dog’s field of vision, which allows the handler to better direct the dog to a specific location. Additionally, wearing their own pair of goggles, the handler can see through the dog’s eyes to understand exactly what their canine partner is dealing with.

Dr. Stephen Lee, an ARO scientist, said that AR will work differently for dogs than it does 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.”

The goggles are still very much a work in progress. For example, they are still wired, which understandably severely restricts the operational range of a military dog.

Research is ongoing, however, and a wireless prototype should be ready during the next phase of development. Dr. Peper said that the initial results from the development program are “extremely promising”.

“Much of the research to date has been conducted with my rottweiler, Mater. His ability to generalize from other training to working through the AR goggles has been incredible,” said Peper.

The project has already provided huge improvements over traditional methods to guide the dogs. These have included laser pointers and issuing voice commands through a walkie-talkie.

Aside from military applications, Peper’s research is providing us with a better idea of how our best friends perceive the world.

“We will be able to probe canine perception and behavior in a new way with this tool,” Lee said.

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