Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Pokémon Go: The future of warfare

Militaries world over have been talking about employing augmented reality or a few years now. Such technology will essentially work the way Pokmon Go does

The Pokémon Go phenomenon has given a new lease of life to the beleaguered Nintendo Corp., helped people rediscover their neighbourhoods and cities, and ensured ‘video game’ and ‘exercise’ can be used in the same sentence without any sense of irony. Its single biggest achievement, however, has been bringing augmented reality (AR) technology firmly into the mainstream.

AR is a technology that allows for interaction between the virtual and physical worlds in a way that augments real-world experience by superimposing data on it. This data can be in the form of images, videos or text. While theoretically AR has been talked about for a while, it is only recently that it has reached a stage where it can be applied to real-world uses.

Pokémon Go in this regard however, is the crudest application of AR. It has shown that AR can be commercially deployed on a global scale and can be integrated with current hardware. However, more and more technology companies are investing in developing more sophisticated AR. This becomes especially important for warfare in the near future.

Militaries across the world have been talking about incorporating AR in their battlefield kits for a few years now. Such technology will essentially work the way Pokémon Go works. The only difference being that the Pokémon will be replaced by multiple data sets, including maps and satellite imagery, and the hand-held mobile will be replaced with a headset built into infantry helmets. Such use of AR will have a two-fold impact.

First, the soldier on the field will have immediate access to a wide range of data, all within his field of vision. This will enhance the efficiency of battlefield operations and significantly reduce casualties. The soldier would not have to look down at a physical map or a hand-held computer, saving precious time in hostile areas. AR will also help identify incoming threats or weapon systems in real time, allowing front-line commanders to make quicker and more informed decisions.

Second, the flow of information will not be one-way. While the soldier on the field will receive real-time information from the headquarters, he will also be able to relay back live data from the battlefield. This data would include information like GPS location, video feeds, a live count of ammunition, weapon systems being used by hostiles and the health status of individual soldiers.

Enhanced connectivity between various actors in disparate areas of the battlefield would allow commanders to build real-time three-dimensional maps and therefore frame more cohesive strategies, taking into account actors not only on land but also in air and on water. This will also allow faster and better responses to on-field changes.

Taken together, these two outcomes will greatly enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of militaries. Along with autonomous weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles, AR can lead to a new form of warfare. Militaries across the world have thus begun developing and deploying it in their front-line systems.

The US navy, for example, is all set to deploy AR diving helmets by next year. AR will also be at the heart of the US’s proposed Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) for front-line infantry.

Success on the battlefields of tomorrow therefore will depend on how militaries develop and use technologies such as AR. With increasing global interest, it becomes imperative for India to consciously begin incentivizing public and private research in this area. While there seems to be no concerted thrust towards public research, there already exist private companies like AugRay, which have built up necessary expertise but face a shortage of funds. As per a recent estimate, there are nearly 76 start-ups and companies in India that focus on AR. The inability to take advantage of this would increase India’s dependence on foreign military technology and cripple the effectiveness of our armed forces in the near future. Further, an early military deployment of this technology will ensure that the Indian armed forces have an advantage over other armies in our neighbourhood. Given India’s security needs, AR provides a competitive edge that cannot be overlooked.

R. Shashank Reddy is a researcher with Carnegie India, New Delhi.

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