The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is taking proactive measures to address potential vulnerabilities in mixed reality (MR) headsets, which could have serious implications for military personnel. They have initiated the Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) program, aimed at safeguarding MR systems against “cognitive attacks.”
These attacks exploit the close relationship between users and MR equipment, including cyberattacks such as information flooding, injection of virtual data, and personal area network disruptions.
Cognitive attacks go beyond digital interference and may involve planting real-world objects to confuse MR displays, using physical objects to trigger false alarms, or tracking a wearer’s eye movements to monitor their actions. The consequences are detrimental, leading to MR users receiving inaccurate information or experiencing debilitating lags that induce nausea and hinder their ability to perform.
The ICS program is founded on the idea that formal methods, which rely on mathematics-based approaches to ensure system guarantees, can be extended with cognitive models to protect MR users from such attacks. These formal methods have not been widely applied to MR protection, but the cognitive engineering field provides principles to create models and guarantees for defense against cognitive attacks.
While DARPA’s ICS initiative is still in its early stages, it is progressing more swiftly than the development of MR technology. For instance, the US Army’s 2022 tests of mixed reality HoloLens headsets, created in collaboration with Microsoft, revealed issues such as headaches, eyestrain, and nausea after only a few hours of use. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) project, derived from custom HoloLens hardware, faced delays and funding concerns.
The Army has taken steps to improve IVAS, but it will take time for cognitive security features from DARPA’s ICS program to be integrated into such devices. Nevertheless, DARPA is determined to develop methods for protected MR systems before they become widespread in battlefield applications, prioritizing the safety and effectiveness of military personnel’s use of MR technology. The exact timeline for achieving these objectives remains uncertain.