DARPA’s a Bit Concerned About Tactical-Puking Attacks

DARPA’s a Bit Concerned About Tactical-Puking Attacks

In a scene seemingly pulled directly out of Cyberpunk 2077, DARPA, the army’s top research and development arm, is reportedly exploring ways to defend Army soldiers against “cognitive attacks” that could result in them puking under their HoloLens mixed reality headsets. Future wars, it seems, will be fought with guts in more ways than one.

DARPA detailed its plans to protect against the attacks in a document this week first reported by The Register. In it, the agency says headset-clad warriors could be subject to a variety of attacks that “exploit the intimate connection between users and MR [mixed reality] equipment.”

Enemies could plant real-world objects in a soldier’s digital field of view to confuse them, overwhelm displays with planted objects, or even tap into their goggles and spy on their eye-tracking movements. They could also potentially flood a soldier’s headset with garbage data in order to increase latency “and induce physical illness.” In other words, a sophisticated attack could potentially send those Meals Ready-to-Eat back where they came from.

“The core technical hypothesis of the program is that formal methods can be extended with cognitive guarantees and models to protect mixed reality users from cognitive attacks.” DARPA did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

A spokesperson for Microsoft, which develops the mixed reality headsets used by the US Army, said the company was aware of potential “cognitive attacks” and has been developing solutions to mitigate the risks they may pose.

“Security is a key priority as we develop products for national security missions,” the Microsoft spokesperson told Gizmodo. “Identifying, understanding, and then developing solutions and mitigation strategies for various risks, including potential ‘cognitive attacks,’ is and has always been part of our ongoing security review efforts to ensure our products and services meet Army and DoD needs.”

The US military has been toying with ways to bring mixed reality headsets to battlefields for years. Back in 2021, Microsoft won a mammoth $US21.9 billion contract to supply the Army with around 120,000 modified versions of its HoloLens headsets. The headsets reportedly feature a wide range of augmented reality features like real-time mapping and projected holographic images as well as virtual reality features intended for training purposes. The combined AR and VR properties, the Army notes, let soldiers “fight, rehearse, and train using a single platform.” Microsoft did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Microsoft’s improved headsets are less nausea-inducing than before

Cool as all that may sound, the military-grade HoloLens headsets have had a stomach-churning history prior to the introduction of potential sophisticated cognitive attacks. Soldiers testing the headsets have reported nausea, headaches, eye strain, and other “mission-affecting physical impairments” according to an internal Amry report seen last year. More than 80% of the soldiers who reported those issues did so after less than three hours of use.

“The devices would have gotten us killed,” one of the testers said, according to a document seen by Insider.

Concerns resulting from those, and other reports led Congress earlier this year to deny the Army’s request to purchase 6,900 additional headsets. The Army has since said it plans to release a new version of the headset with a new form factor that should help address some of the physical symptoms.

“Microsoft is collaborating closely with the US Army to develop the next iteration of the IVAS headset that improves on earlier variants with a slimmer, lighter, and more balanced form factor to greatly improve soldier comfort and performance,” the spokesperson told Gizmodo. “Our ability to deliver significant improvements for IVAS 1.2, months ahead of schedule, is part of the transformational rapid prototyping process we’ve pioneered for the program, allowing both the Army and Microsoft teams to design, build, test and improve the technology at an unprecedented pace.’

Army officials reportedly received prototypes of the revamped devices in July and said they marked a “significant improvement” from the past model. That positive feedback had reportedly led the Army’s top weapons buyer to greenlight even more of the devices.

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