Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, a VR company Facebook acquired in 2014, says Zuckerberg’s decision to go all-in on VR and the metaverse created a massive amount of expectation in the commercial world. “Everyone on their quarterly corporate calls, like a week or two later, they’re being asked by investors, ‘What’s your metaverse play?’,” he says.

In 2017, Luckey cofounded the defense company Anduril. He says that despite all the recent metaverse hype, there is big defense potential, partly because military training is so important and costly. But he says the technology does not have to be hyper-realistic to be useful, and he wants Anduril to focus on only using the technology where necessary. “Everything we’re doing with VR is something where it is uniquely better than any other option,” he says. This includes using VR to train people to operate Anduril’s drones, he says, or to display information about an area using data from sensors on the ground.

As with Zuckerberg’s planned metaverse, newer military systems rely heavily on AI to be effective. In October 2020, the AR technology developed by Red6 was used to pit a real fighter pilot against an aircraft controlled by an AI algorithm developed as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) AI dogfighting project. The AI top gun, created by another startup called EpiSci, learned how to outmaneuver and outgun an opponent through a process of trial and error. The AI pilot eventually developed superhuman skills and was able to beat its human opponent every time.

Another DARPA project, called Perceptually-enabled Task Guidance, aims to create an AI assistant that watches what a soldier is doing and offers advice through speech, sound, or graphics. In contrast to the augmented reality system developed by Boeing, which only works in a specific setting, such a system would need to make sense of the real world. Bruce Draper, the DARPA program manager responsible, says the real value of technologies being explored by the military lies in merging the real and the virtual. “The metaverse is mostly virtual, and virtual worlds are useful for training, but we live in the physical world,” he says. “The military domain is inherently physical, it’s not about an abstract metaverse.”

But efforts to merge the virtual and the real world have encountered problems. In March 2022, a leaked Microsoft memo reportedly showed that those working on IVAS, the US Army version of the HoloLens AR headset, expected it to be received badly by users. And an audit released by the DOD in April 2022 concluded that the US Army could waste its money as a result. Jason Kuruvilla, a senior communications manager at Microsoft, shared several statements from high-ranking army figures proclaiming the potential of the IVAS. He also pointed to a 2021 DOD report that discusses the importance of developing IVAS rapidly, allowing problems to be ironed out along the way.

Such high-profile and expensive endeavors have only boosted the confidence of those pushing the military metaverse. “I know that this is the future of military training,” says Doug Philippone, global defense lead at Palantir, a defense company that has invested in both Anduril and Red6. “But I also see it as the future of the way that the military fights and makes decisions. So it’s not just about fighting, it’s about making decisions.”

Luckey says Anduril is already working on technology that could do this in training missions and combat. “The next big step for us, which I am really excited about, is taking from our core product and piping that data to heads-up displays that troops on the front line are going to be able to wear,” he says.

But how much of this cutting-edge tech makes it to the front line—or even into training exercises—remains unclear. Sorin Adam Matei, a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who has developed virtual battlefield training platforms for the US military, says the tech deployed will often be considerably simpler than metaverse boosters imagine. He suggests that a simpler version of the IVAS headset may eventually be integrated into an AR rifle scope. “When you are out there shooting and being shot at, the last thing you want to worry about is another piece of equipment,” he says. And technology does not need to be as expansive as a metaverse to be useful. “We need to think a bit more about this metaverse metaphor—which is powerful but also has its limitations.”

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