Last week, Congress blocked a $400 million award to Microsoft for the purchase of nearly 7000 Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) systems for the Army. The award would have followed the Army’s investment of $125 million to develop the Hololens-based augmented reality headset. The issue? IVAS proved to be spectacularly problematic in user testing last year, with 80% of Soldiers reporting physical discomfort, eye strain, nausea, and other issues within the first three hours of use. Instead, they awarded a $40 million contract to develop yet another version of IVAS…to Microsoft, the same company that delivered the current system.
On the one hand, as one who conducts these kinds of end user research, it’s gratifying to see the Army doing extensive user experience testing before deploying something this invasive and frankly, potentially dangerous. Using a Hololens, or any other augmented reality headset, in a controlled environment is one thing. Having your field of view occluded by constantly changing data streams while you’re being shot at is potentially a human factors nightmare. At the very least, if Soldiers don’t like it, they won’t use it. And it turns out, they don’t. In addition, the methodology of this testing has been criticized by the Inspector General.
User research is critically important when you’re developing a capability your users will interact with on a daily basis. The process should start before the prototype stage, though. The impetus for IVAS did not come from the boots on the ground; it’s the result of nearly 20 years of research and development into head-worn augmented reality. It’s not clear whether Soldiers were ever asked “What are your problems?” before they were asked “Do you like this thing we’ve made to solve them?”
We see this problem a lot working in the training technology space. We’re regularly asked to develop solutions without talking to the intended users until a prototype is developed. I get it. Their time is valuable. They’re hard to get a hold of. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved. We don’t need to talk to them, we’re the experts. Yes, we’re the experts in how to apply the science behind why things work, and we’re the experts in designing the solution. We’re also the experts in evaluating the solution. But we can’t be the experts in how people do their jobs, the problems they have, the barriers to solving them, and their work environment without listening to them. Because it’s never as straightforward as it seems.
Where does IVAS go from here? Some would argue there are too many technical barriers to overcome right now. Others would argue that the contract should be recompeted instead of continuing to throw money at a sunk cost. I would argue the Army should take a step back and ask if this solution broadly is the right one to solve the Infantry’s problems today.
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