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DARPA working on eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head hat

'Full Sphere Awareness' to use software mini-cameras

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Maverick Pentagon boffins have decided to build a miraculous gadget – perhaps as small and lightweight as a pair of sunglasses – which will endow the user with zoom vision, various forms of nightsight, and act as a heads-up display besides. Perhaps best of all, the proposed kit would also offer "full sphere awareness" – that is, eyes in the back of your head.

All this is to be achieved, according to the specifications for the new project, by the use of "computational cameras". These are a radical new approach to camera design, which will shift much of the burden of forming images – which is handled optically in today's cameras – into software.

According to the Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) project documents:

The task of image formation may be more equitably shared among the optical and electronic/algorithmic elements of the camera system. The computational imaging paradigm seeks to exploit this realization in order to gain access to an entirely new region of camera design space.

The military researchers' ultimate goal is a miracle lightweight device which would provide all-around spherical vision out to 1km in high resolution and at a high framerate across the visual spectrum and well into the infrared bands used by thermal imagers and nightsights. However they might be willing to accept as a first step kit which merely improves hugely on that now on offer.

As an example, they give the current US issue M-22 binoculars, which are bulky, heavy and offer limited field-of-view and only 7x magnification. They say:

A preferred solution would operate hands-free, provide similar or better magnification on-demand, while providing FOV equal to that of the unaided eye, and incur [size, weight and power] cost comparable to that of current protective eyewear.

The miracle binocular-specs are referred to later on as Hands Free Zoom, which "aims to provide switchable stereoscopic telephoto vision in a compact form factor". It will be joined by Computer Enhanced Vision, which will allow a user to use any combination of ordinary vision, nightsight or thermal imagery and overlay this with weapon gunsights or other information. Finally, the SCENICC kit is to offer Full Sphere Awareness "providing automatic threat detection and cueing along with cross platform integration of novel visual information".

The radical new Computational Camera equipment – which will achieve all this without making a soldier's helmet too heavy to wear – will be much less optical and much more software driven. There are to be "soldier-specific software agents", "task-specific and/or adaptive processing", "optimal allocation of algorithmic functionality between focal plane and traditional computational resources", and "low power multi-core computation suitable for portable imaging applications".

As ever with this type of story, one should note that the funding agency is DARPA and thus chances of full success are small – DARPA's mission is to undertake high-risk projects. The famously extramurally-prandial* government boffins probably won't succeed in building their miracle eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head hat or headset; but one does note that DARPA was instrumental in producing the first ordinary night-vision kit. They may be similarly successful here.

The full SCENICC solicitation is here in pdf. ®

*Out to lunch

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