1970-1982 - Augmented Reality & Aviation

Gabriel Picard - Jan 8, 2021 - 11 min read

The military world is renowned for its innovations. In this article you will discover how augmented reality has enhanced modern aviation.

The first traces of AR in the air force

The military world is renowned for its innovations and it is often in this sector that new technology finds a playground of opportunity to grow. Augmented reality is no exception; in the early 1980s, the first helmets with real-time virtual displays were tested by the lucky fighter pilots of the American army.

Top Gun - 1986

Back in the 70's 🤙

Let's start with a bit of context: in the 1970s, aviation systems became more complex and sophisticated, requiring more hours of training to maintain a very demanding level of flying ability. Fuel costs soared and funding for aviation was limited. In order to remain efficient, there was an urgent need to do things differently. If there’s a situation when you're backed into a corner, you have to innovate your way out of it, and that's how the first flight simulators were born.

The first simulators met the training needs of teams. However, there are no design standards, and the most sought after systems are far too expensive. They required computer power that was unrivaled at the time, which led to a lack of flexibility. Even though flight simulators were a revolution in the field, they did not fully meet the needs of military aviation at the time.

Augmented Reality to reach higher goals 🎯

After years of development, the ground simulators partially meet the challenges we face currently. Researchers are continuing their efforts and the spark will come from a team at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It was Thomas Furness, an expert in the creation of virtual displays with more than ten years of experience in the field, that succeeded in raising funds to develop and present: The Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS) in 1982.


It was the first Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) helmet alone! A revolution that had several research objectives: how to use the pilot's head to help them when firing, how to disseminate information from the aircraft's sensors on a virtual display, and lastly how to make pilot training more accessible and less costly.

Researchers were successful and even if the system has flaws (limited viewing angles) it ticked all the boxes and became a real reference. In 1982, VCASS was similar to what we define today as virtual reality (VR) but it opened the way to a panel of innovative helmet-mounted displays: Embedded augmented reality.

 Thomas Furness III
Thomas Furness III

Thomas Furness is considered the grandfather of virtual reality and one of the pioneers of augmented reality. Once again in this blog, we take the time to thank the Kings 👑 !

So Mr Thomas Furness thank you 🙌

Embedded augmented reality

Embedded augmented reality is the AR we consume on our smartphones and it is above all the AR we are all waiting for in our Smartglasses. In this context "embedded" means that the device that broadcasts virtual content is also the one that "embeds'' the sensors and AR technology.

Here is an example of what a Helicopter pilot can see through the HMS&D TopOwl from Thales.

Thales - TopOwl
Thales - TopOwl view

In another context, today the Hololens is a good example of embedded augmented reality. Microsoft's glasses embody all the technology necessary for the recognition of filmed surfaces, allowing an experience of anchoring virtual content in a real environment. But hey, that will be the subject for another article ;)

Microsoft - Hololens 2
Microsoft - Hololens 2

Ok i’m off! See you next time!

Gabriel Picard
Gabriel Picard
Creative Director, Cofounder
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