The US Army wants mixed reality headsets that detect enemy fire, translate languages and see in the dark. Anduril, the startup founded by Oculus’ Palmer Luckey, is on it.
Category : entrepreneur
- Palmer Luckey’s defense tech startup Anduril says it would like to someday outfit American soldiers with augmented-reality headsets that can weave together critical bits of information on the battlefield.
- The company wouldn’t be the first to work on this kind of tech. Microsoft has a multimillion dollar contract with the Army to crack it.
- But Anduril has a secret weapon: Luckey, a pioneer of virtual-reality headsets. He brought several engineers and product designers from his previous company Oculus VR to Anduril.
- “The real moonshot for us is this idea of — you want to have every soldier, every operator, be able to have total awareness of what’s going on,” Anduril CEO Brian Schimpf told Business Insider.
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Before they knew what kind of product they would build, the founders of Anduril had a vision to create a real-world Stark Industries, the fictional defense company of Iron Man fame.
One product in Anduril’s pipeline brings the defense tech startup closer to Tony Stark’s enterprise than anything it has tackled before.
The team is working on software for headsets that combine virtual reality and augmented reality to help soldiers be safer and more effective in the battlefield, according to Brian Schimpf, cofounder and chief executive of Anduril. These goggles might provide diagnostics or detect threats, not unlike the “heads-up display” in Iron Man’s suit.
Anduril would not be the first to try to bring this science-fiction technology into the real world, but it has an advantage in founder Palmer Luckey, who is best known as the designer of the Oculus virtual-reality headset. Luckey sold Oculus to Facebook in 2014, and after his controversial split with the social network, Luckey brought a throng of engineers and product designers from Oculus VR with him to Anduril. Another cofounder, Joseph Chen, was an early employee and product lead at the firm.
“The real moonshot for us is this idea of — you want to have every soldier, every operator, be able to have total awareness of what’s going on,” Schimpf tells Business Insider. “They know everything they need to know to do their job, and all of this is available to them in a millisecond, and just the most critical information they need.”
The goggles might tell the wearer that there’s gunfire a certain distance away, and they should seek cover in a specified area, Shimpf gave as an example.
Anduril told Business Insider after the interview that the company has no plans to make the hardware for military-grade headsets. Instead, it wants to create software that gathers intelligence from the battlefield and feeds it to a mixed-reality headset worn by soldiers.
Last year, Microsoft beat out traditional defense contractors and its main competitor, Magic Leap, for a $480 million contract to provide augmented-reality headsets to the Army. Its HoloLens is considered the most sophisticated consumer-grade headset on the market, though at a $3,500 price point, it has yet to achieve mass adoption.
A small group of employees at Microsoft have pressured it to cancel the contract, saying that they didn’t sign up to develop weapons at Microsoft. They wrote to the company’s leadership in an open letter, “We do not want to become war profiteers.” A company spokesperson told Business Insider at the time that it welcomed the feedback but would continue to fill the contract with the Army.
The Army contract calls for an AI-based augmented-reality headset that can locate hostile fire, plan routes, and even translate foreign languages in real time.
An Anduril spokeswoman said that what it’s trying to do is not the same as Microsoft’s endeavor. A closer comparison would be Apple’s approach in the race to put a fully self-driving car on the road. The iPhone maker is reportedly working on autonomous driving software, but it has abandoned plans to build a car from scratch.
Anduril’s broader mission is to equip the United States military with the most evolved tech on the planet, helping it maintain its superpower status over states like China and Russia. The Irvine, California, startup makes hardware and software for the defense industry — and puts some of tech’s brightest minds to work on applications that employees at Google and Amazon won’t touch. Anduril has contracts with half a dozen agencies of the Department of Defense to provide surveillance systems and drone-killing robots, and it has received funding that values the company at $1 billion.
Schimpf did not give specifics on the company’s timeline for a headset, but said it already has “a couple of very cool things on virtual reality.” He described the headset as a “far future” project.
“There’s a lot of technology that needs to mature to get there, and that’s a key thing we want to be able to solve,” Schimpf said.
The company’s first product was technology for a “virtual” border wall. Its sensor-laden watchtowers use radar, cameras, and artificial intelligence to stitch together a complete picture of what’s happening in a defined area. Today, the software can detect a person entering the area, but it can’t tell if they are unauthorized or armed.
In October, Anduril revealed a drone that’s capable of locking onto other drones and ramming them out of the air. The goal is to help the military remove the “constant threat” of enemy drones dropping explosive devices, Schimpf said. It has hundreds in production.
It’s not hard to imagine the company using some combination of its custom software and hardware to scan an area, analyze what it sees, and communicate that intel to a group of soldiers wearing headsets. Overhead drones or sentry towers could potentially pipe video to a headset, allowing a solider to see what’s around the corner.
One of the biggest challenges with headsets is figuring out “how do we make all that information available, how do we make it intelligible, and how do we present the right information so they can make the right decision?” Schimpf said. “That to me is the crux of what we’re trying to do with a lot of technology we’re working on.”