Military binoculars may soon get information directly from the brains of the soldiers using them.
With the idea that that the brain absorbs and assesses more visual information than it lets on — and that it could make more sense out of what's visible through high-power binoculars if it stopped filtering that information — the Pentagon has awarded contracts to two defense firms to develop brainwave-aided binoculars.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, is betting that intelligent binoculars can tap into the brain's ability to spot patterns and movement and help soldiers detect threats from miles farther away than they can with traditional binoculars.
Electrodes on the scalp inside a helmet will record the user's brain activity as it processes information about high-resolution images produced by wide-angle military binoculars. Those responses will train the binoculars over time to recognize threats.
"You need to present the soldier with many images and then use the person's brain to figure out what is of interest," said Yuval Boger, CEO of Sensics, Inc., a Baltimore-based maker of panoramic head-mounted displays.
Sensics belongs to a team led by Northrop Grumman that won $6.7 million for its research. Other members include Northrop's Linthicum-based Electronic Systems division; SAIC of San Diego, Calif.; Theia Technologies LLC, of Wilsonville, Ore.; and Dallas-based L-3 Communications Infrared Products. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, Portland State University and the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo. are also participating.
Paul Hasler, an associate professor of engineering at Georgia Tech, described the technology as an example of "neuromorphic" engineering that uses hardware and software to emulate human intelligence.
"You would see a certain picture in your field of view, but the device would actually be looking over a much wider space — and if it found something interesting it would present you with that picture as well," Hasler said.
The other contractor to win a contract is HRL Laboratories, which received $4.3 million, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.
Dr. Robert Shin, assistant professor of neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the brain is constantly processing images but most get filtered out.
"There is a level where the brain can identify things before it ever makes it to the conscious level," Shin said. "Your brain says, 'It may be something.' But it might not realize that it is something that should rise to the conscious level."