Military Goes First

Charlie Fink
13 min readMar 14, 2019

An excerpt from Convergence, How the World Will Be Painted With Data.

By Sam Steinberger

The military’s first practical forays into AR-like technology date back to just before World War II. In less than a century, AR technology has moved from infrared systems to “X-ray” vision.

Night Vision

One of the first forms of AR to be used by the military was night vision. Modern night-vision systems, which allow soldiers to see in light levels approaching complete darkness, really had their start in 1929 when Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi invented the first infrared-sensitive electronic camera. This classified technology was used by the British to detect enemy aircraft.

Soon after, scientists working in Germany began to explore the use of infrared technology. By the end of WWII, they had developed an infrared weapons system that used a beam of infrared light to illuminate objects. This beam effectively “painted with light” to create visibility through special optics systems sensitive to the infrared spectrum.

These “active infrared” systems were developed for tank crews, as well as for individual soldiers, so they could fight in darkness. However, a significant disadvantage of the active system is that just shining a floodlight in the visible light spectrum would give away one’s position, anyone with an infrared viewing system would also be able to spot and potentially disable an infrared light source.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army also had secret programs of its own to develop an active infrared system for use by individual soldiers in the 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1960s, the U.S. Army had developed the “starlight scope,” an evolution of the active system and used in the Vietnam War. This scope was a passive system, essentially magnifying the available light, like the moon or stars, in order to make a scene more visible. Although passive systems were less bulky and lighter than the active systems, the rifle mounted scopes that used passive technology were underpowered compared to today’s devices. The fundamentals behind passive infrared systems, however, informed today’s night-vision technology.

The next major development in augmented night vision came in the form of thermal-vision technology…

Charlie Fink

Consultant, Columnist, Author, Adjunct, Covering AI, XR, Metaverse for Forbes