The US Army and Microsoft use HoloLens 2 contract to create Integrated Visual Augmentation System for combat

Kareem Anderson

Microsoft’s controversial combat-outfitted HoloLens 2 gets an early review from CNBC reporters who were briefed on the specifics of the device, the rapidly evolving development between Microsoft and the US Army for supported use cases and images of the custom software and in-the-field deployment.

As an invitee of the US Army to Fort Pickett, CNBC journalist Todd Haselton got a firsthand look at what the $480 million collaboration between Microsoft and the Pentagon produced. According to Haselton, Microsoft’s commercial HoloLens 2 headsets are being retrofitted as Integrated Visual Augmentation Systems (IVAS) to be used in the field by US Army personnel, with the intent to reduce the number of additional combat devices a single soldier needs to carry, including thermal and night vision goggles, phones, and computers.

Due to the sensitive nature of the project, Haselton and CNBC were not allowed to film or record their meeting at Fort Pickett, but were provided hands-on experience with a demo unit and approved captures to add to their reporting.

Haselton’s description of the new IVAS HoloLens 2 headset flows off his article like a fever dream from any military themed first-person-shooter.

If this sounds familiar, you might be a gamer. The whole experience felt natural to me, as I’ve played lots of first-person shooter video games that show me exactly where I am on a map, where my teammates are and where the enemy is. It was almost like a real-life game of “Call of Duty.”But IVAS goes even further. It can also be used for thermal imaging.CNBC Tech: Army IVAS Thermal impression CNBC artistic rendition of the thermal night vision capabilities of IVAS.Kyle Walsh | CNBCNight vision goggles currently used in the field emit a green glow, which the enemy can see. IVAS doesn’t glow as much and still allows soldiers to see other people in the dark. When I tried it, people glowed bright white, as if everyone in the room had suddenly turned into ghosts. With the lights off, I could see someone standing plainly behind a set of ferns, which I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.

In addition to becoming a more like the games some military personnel play during their downtime, the IVAS also has the added benefit of risk factor reduction in that, its night vision isn’t subject to smoke interference and its night vision is devoid the “green glow” when active. While many employees remain staunch protestors to Microsoft’s participation in this program for reasons that include the lethality of the device, the HoloLens 2 isn’t all about in-the-field combat.

The IVAS HoloLens 2 will also be used as a training resource for military personnel to help improve their marksmanship, terrain traversal, strategy briefings, presumably.

“It’s not just for use in combat,” Under Secretary of the Army McCarthy said. “We can gather data on a soldier in training and improve their marksmanship. We can see their heart rate.”

In context, Microsoft’s collaboration and contract with the Pentagon is a first on several fronts, including its expedited approval process and the nature of the consolidated technology. After beating out the likes of Google and Magic Leap to earn the $450 million dollar contract, Microsoft also gains the title of being among the elite contractors to score a deal and have a field in testing in under the standard five to seven-year timeframe.

As to why the Pentagon went with Microsoft as its preferred choice, it seems the company’s process for digesting feedback was a bonus. “We need to iterate often and we found a partner with Microsoft that does that,” he said. “It’s abnormal that a vendor has direct input from soldiers for like two weeks.”

Beyond the contracts, negotiations, exclusive interviews and development sessions, Haselton spoke with the soldiers testing the new IVAS daily to see what their reaction is to the new technology, and for the most part, it’s been pretty positive.

It’s common for us to have multiple systems that do an aspect of what the IVAS is doing itself,” one soldier said. The soldiers said they were excited about “after-action” reports, which showed them a summary of their accuracy and performance after a training exercise. “This system is next-level for training and for the future of Marines,” one soldier said. The soldiers kept referring to IVAS as a “combat multiplier” which, in short, means it makes them more deadly. This is particularly important for training ahead of deployment.

As excited as the soldiers are, the Army can’t fast track the project quick enough for demand. At the earliest, select soldiers may get a field-tested headset by 2022 or 2023 with a more broad deployment in 2028.