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The Eye of Nomad

The Eye of Nomad

Augmented vision devices made by Microvision Inc. of Bothell help troops in Iraq keep their eyes on the mission.

By Eric Fetters

Herald Writer

BOTHELL - Stryker vehicle commanders leading their armored combat vehicles through Iraq are getting a little help from high-tech devices developed by a local company.

With augmented vision units made by Bothell's Microvision Inc., the commanders can check digital maps without having to take their eyes off the road.

"It's nice to see it being used and saving lives, because it was military money that helped develop it," said Bruce Westcoat, who handles Microvision's military applications and sales.

The heart of the 1-pound, helmet-mounted Nomad system is a tiny laser-scanning mirror mounted on a silicon chip. A low-powered red laser sends an image to a mirror about the size of the head of a pin. In a fraction of a second, the mirror bounces the image to an optical combiner, which uses lenses to divert it to the back of the viewer's retina. This micro-electromechanical system, known as MEMS technology, is used in an increasing number of devices, including bar code scanners by Microvision and Everett-based Intermec Technologies Corp.

The 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, the second Stryker team deployed from Fort Lewis, is now using the Nomad device in Iraq. Before that, the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division used 100 Nomad units during its tour of duty there, Westcoat said.

The Nomad units solve a simple, but critical, problem.

While the Stryker's high-tech tracking and battle systems seem to work well, the information from those systems is displayed on an inconveniently located screen. Because it's inside the vehicle, the commander can't see it and watch the battlefield from the vehicle's top hatch at the same time.

Instead, Westcoat said, most commanders end up ducking inside the vehicle to glance at the screen, popping their heads out the top hatch and then repeating the process - frequently.

"They were doing this 60 to 70 times an hour. It was a huge fiasco for them," he said. "It's actually a distraction for them to duck down into the vehicle to study the display."

Additionally, continually bending between the vehicle's interior and the hatch can take a physical toll.

With this in mind, the Army began talking with Microvision 21/2 years ago about modifying the company's system for use by Stryker vehicle commanders.

The Nomad system can create a bright display that appears as a 17-inch diameter map a foot in front of the commander's field of vision. Even though the red display is designed to be easily readable in the desert sunlight of Iraq, it also doesn't block the commander's view.

"When you look past it, it leaves the horizon totally unobstructed," Westcoat said.

After soldiers tried out models of the Nomad at training and readiness exercises in California and Louisiana in 2003, the Army ordered 100 Nomad units for the Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

When the 3rd Brigade Stryker team was deployed to Iraq in fall 2003, Westcoat traveled to Kuwait to help install the Nomad units before they went into Iraq. He found the soldiers quickly learned how to use the helmet-mounted technology.

"The old stereotype of the soldier who doesn't know anything is a thing of the past," he said, adding that one tech-savvy soldier he met in Kuwait figured out how to hook up the Nomad device into his video game player. "I'm not sure I could've done that."

He said he's gotten positive feedback on the Nomad's usefulness from members of the 3rd Brigade, who returned to Fort Lewis this fall.

When Fort Lewis' second Stryker team, the 1st Brigade, went to Iraq in October and November, it took along 10 Nomad units as well.

Soldiers in that team, however, requested another improvement. Microvision added a toggle switch that allows the commander to switch the display between three digital maps displaying different navigational, weapons and tactical information.

Microvision expects to deliver more Nomad units, with the new switches, to the Stryker teams in the year to come, Westcoat added.

The company's relationship with the military isn't new. The basic retinal scanning technology was developed, with military uses in mind, during the 1980s by Thomas Furness, a founder of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab.

After Microvision was launched in 1993, it worked with the military to develop a helmet-mounted display system for helicopter pilots.

In December, the U.S. Army Reserve purchased 37 modified Nomad units for maintenance technicians. The system, already used by several repair shops and dealerships around the country, can display repair manual information.

As soldiers use more real-time information right on the front lines, display devices such as the Nomad will become more critical, Westcoat said. "Conquering the information war is huge. If you can't get the information when you need it, it's useless."


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