The US Government May Have Wasted $22 Billion on HoloLens
A US government watchdog is warning that the Pentagon may have wasted more than $22 billion on Microsoft’s HoloLens by failing to ask if the soldiers who would be theoretically responsible for deploying the hardware actually wanted to use it or perceived any benefit from doing so. This is an observation so banal, one might wonder why the government needed to put it in an audit in the first place. This isn’t the first time, however, that we’ve heard rumors about soldiers not liking HoloLens — or IVAS, as the combat variant is known.
When Microsoft announced it would partner with the US military to develop HoloLens into a combat-capable system, the news was controversial both inside and outside Microsoft. Some company employees felt directly collaborating with the government to develop weapons of war was immoral, while some pundits more generally felt the technology was too immature to be useful on a battlefield. Earlier this year, news broke that Microsoft might not move forward with HoloLens 3. Back in March, a leaked memo also implied the US Army might not be happy with the IVAS hardware. A Microsoft employee stated:
“We are going into the event expecting negative feedback from the customer. We expect soldier sentiment to continue to be negative as reliability improvements have been minimal from previous events. Sounds like the Army is coming in with low expectations to which might be advantageous as the expectations/delivery delta might not be big.”
This audit was prepared by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The document states: “Army testing officials assessed user acceptance from Soldiers (sic) that used IVAS during various operational tests and used the results of those surveys to make changes to the system. However, IVAS program officials did not define minimum user acceptance levels to determine whether IVAS would meet user needs.” The report notes that this oversight occurred because Army policy did not require program officials to define user acceptance levels in the first place.
According to the full report, IVAS was supposed to be built using Soldier Centered Design. Soldier Centered Design, as the name implies, is intended to ensure that the needs of combat troops are top-of-mind when designing the relevant piece of equipment. During IVAS development and prototyping, the military consulted directly with soldiers who had tested the equipment and made changes based on their feedback. Unfortunately, the military apparently never defined the specific criteria IVAS would need to achieve in order to be considered capable of meeting user needs.
The report blacks out all soldier feedback on actual IVAS capabilities, making it difficult to tell what users actually thought. It seems highly unlikely that the unredacted portions of the report would so consistently emphasize the lack of appropriate user acceptance levels if that feedback had been complimentary. One can imagine a situation in which IVAS improved over several successive generations but never closed the critical gaps that were leaving soldiers’ dissatisfied. The Pentagon could still claim to have taken soldier feedback into account (which the OIG notes it did), but if troops don’t like the thing, they’re unlikely to want to use it. According to the leaked memo from last month, soldiers were unhappy with the device’s low-light performance and its thermal imaging. These aren’t small features — they’re key aspects of why the military wants this kind of hardware in the first place. It may be that current technology can’t yet provide the kind of features the military wants in the weight and power consumption footprint the military desires.