What soldiers need for superior data sharing on the battlefield is a tiny screen, a “micro-display” about the size of a postage stamp.

It may sound counterintuitive, but Army researchers say that such a miniature screen may be just the thing for delivering vital tactical data in challenged circumstances.

“It’s a size-weight-and-power issue,” said Gene Klager, deputy director for the Ground Combat Systems Division in the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate at CERDEC, the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “You mount it on your head, and since it’s closer to the eye you don’t need the larger display. Then it can be small, lightweight and low power.”

The emerging technology was field-tested recently by soldiers at Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence.

A tiny head-mounted display would free up soldier to move easily, and quickly deliver visual elements even in low light or in situations with poor visibility. Nor would it require the soldier to glance at a peripheral device or otherwise divert attention away from the forward-facing scene. In addition, the display could improve broad-daylight operations.

“If you’ve ever tried looking at your cellphone on a sunny day, it’s really hard,” said CERDEC electrical engineer David Fellowes in an Army news release. The small-screen module currently under development would be bright enough to overcome this common hurdle.

As envisioned, the micro-display would add an augmented-reality capability to the soldier’s toolkit. “It allows us to overlay information to improve situational awareness ― locations of friendly forces, locations of potential threats and also navigation information,” Klager said. “The soldier can use these points on a display to navigate rather than having to look down at a paper map or look down at the Nett Warrior user device. He has that information in front of him while maintaining heads-up, eyes-out situational awareness."

The display would draw on sensor inputs from a range of data sources. It might be fed by the Nett Warrior suite and could also draw intelligence from vehicle mounted command-and-control systems. “All that information is already available,” Klager said. “We just want to add that information to what the soldier is already looking at, without the soldier having to look away at some other system.”

The big challenges to getting small

The development team has tackled several technical challenges to shrink screen size by orders of magnitude.

Coping with bright sunlight was a major hurdle. Most commercial screen solutions can’t deliver the necessary brightness with the full color and high definition needed to support soldier applications, and commercial cell phone makers are generally focused on making screens bigger, rather than smaller. Thus, a substantial internal development effort was required to overcome the glare issue, Klager said.

Engineers also have pushed for a screen that could deliver data not just legibly, but accurately. “Say we take friendly-force information, which is a two-dimensional grid coordinate. We have to accurately display that in three dimensions, in the real world. That icon has to be accurate,” Klager said. “That is the big challenge in augmented reality, the geolocation of the augmented information. You can’t just display it.”

The team has leaned on digital terrain data, horizon matching and other advanced techniques to ensure the display data correlates correctly to information in the real world.

Finally, developers have worked to ensure that a micro-sized display will still be user friendly. When you’re trying to squeeze vital combat intel onto a very small screen, “it’s about displaying the right amount of information and displaying it effectively,” Klager said. “You have to make the displays user-configurable depending on the user function or preference. Say I was a driver: I’d want to have navigation information available, and perhaps close threats, but I don’t need to see long-range targets. If I were a gunner I’d want to see threats and friendly forces at all ranges,."

CERDEC is now working with PEO Soldier to develop further requirements, and developers say they hope to be fielding the solution within one to two years.