The Path of a Czech Virtual Reality Headset into the Latest Western Fighter
Military pilots are no longer the movie hot shots seen in Top Gun or similar Hollywood blockbusters. Today, cadet pilots don’t just learn to fly but work as an operator within a network-like architecture of multiple aerial and ground elements including JTACs. New pilots need to learn to work with helmet-mounted displays and distributed aperture systems coming into service with the cutting-edge F-35 fifth-generation fighter and other modern aircraft. Virtual and mixed reality systems, including the breakthrough Xtal headset and reconfigurable modular pilot simulators from VRgineers, are examples of promising concepts that address the needs of modern pilot training. Digitalization of pilot training and situational awareness increases the effectiveness and safety of training while providing long-term savings when preparing pilots to fly increasingly complex aircraft.
Virtual reality and aviation are complementary fields, but they have not found their ideal confluence yet. The only area where virtual reality has prevailed are simulators that rely heavily on virtual airspace and aircraft models. This technology already exists and continues to develop, but it is not capable of meeting the needs of the latest technologies being deployed. One of very few brand-new elements revolutionizing pilot training is fully virtual reality, eliminating the need for hardware such as projection domes.
This is where the story of VRgineers comes in. A few years ago, Marek Polčák, CEO and co-founder of the company was not satisfied with the quality of VR headsets on the market. Leveraging his hardware experience from his previous company Quanti, he decided to develop his own, bleeding-edge VR headset. At first, the company focused on the industrial segment, but later it found more meaningful long-term applications in the aerospace sector. Polčák’s goal now is to produce the best VR headset for pilot training. The results speak for themselves as the United States Air Force (USAF) decided to test VRgineer’s latest headset, the Xtal, as a training element for its state-of-the-art F-35 fighter.
FOCUS ON MODERN FIGHTERS
The Xtal by VRgineers is based on a unique and patent-protected lens design and optical correction software. Its singularity lies in its production and processing technologies. VRgineers managed to create unique asymmetric optic technology which offers outstanding image quality and a 180° field of view. Together with its advanced proprietary software, the Xtal offers a new benchmark for immersion into a virtual environment. The superb optical quality of the 8K picture and system speed is truly breathtaking. The Xtal was researched, developed, and produced in the Czech Republic using mostly COTS components. Although costlier than gaming-level technologies, the Xtal is a priceless tool in aerospace and other engineering sectors to slash training and prototyping costs.
This technology is so promising that the USAF selected the headset for their F-35 fighter to evaluate its possible implementation in training. “It is an honor to participate and contribute on the most advanced fighter jet platform in the world,” Polčák said. The company’s success is all the more impressive considering it never received any direct government support and its achievement is solely attributable to the quality of its product and the hard work of its people. It’s already a Tier 2 supplier to Lockheed Martin with the clear goal of moving up to Tier 1. Its business plan expresses the company’s ambition to become a complex training solution provider with an in-house developed roadmap that includes training syllabi and evaluation.
So how did the USAF’s technological scouts discover Xtal and the potential that premium-quality VR offers? “I never met a technology scout here in the Czech Republic or anywhere nearby, but we were and continue to be on their radar in the US,” Polčák noted. Moreover, the Royal Air Force is currently testing the headset for its F-35s. VRgineer’s Xtal is the missing piece of the virtual reality training puzzle: It can fully replicate sophisticated helmet-mounted displays while also supporting a distributed aperture system using its panoramic cameras.
The Xtal replaces expensive training helmets for each individual pilot that are currently used while offering unparalleled freedom of movement and modularity. It also delivers a new level of situational awareness in training, something that is impossible with existing flight simulators and projection domes. If successful, the company may soon benefit from the wide and ever-growing fleet of F-35s. Furthermore, VRgineers has selected other platforms for future growth, such as the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk, among others. The Xtal can be adapted to any platform with the option to use the same system for multi-crew coordination where door-gunners or rescuers can use the same headsets and train together with pilots. VRgineers also plans to integrate its system with open OEM software, allowing the operator to upload military-grade aircraft-related software on their own with unlimited exportability.
“The US is our main market, although we also work with European civil and training aircraft makers,” Marek added. The Xtal headsets are currently undergoing tests administered by the US Air Force, US Navy, and a few other governmental organizations. The company continues to focus on exports with support from the national CzechTrade agency.
Although heavier than gaming-level headsets, the Xtal is much lighter than an actual pilot helmet with its display and night vision goggles. Start-up time is exceptionally fast, while the underlying computing runs with only a few milliseconds delay, meaning user perception is just like real-time. The image quality and level of detail are phenomenal, putting the Xtal on a different level compared to the best headsets on the market. The system supports full hand movement mapping, as well as haptic feedback with the use of a hardware replica of the cockpit. To achieve full immersion, MFD bezels can be added and controlled using Xtal’s mixed reality extension. VRgineers invests significant effort into tactical training, combining advanced situational awareness with cooperation. The headset is thus the ideal tool for any type of training as it can convert classrooms into virtual combat scenarios within seconds. The software development capabilities of the company, not born in the aviation industry, are comparable with its well-established competitors, and the F/A-18 and Mi8MTV-2 simulators in its showroom in Prague and under construction in San Antonio demonstrate that a superb training tool can be provided by a newcomer. The headset helps pilots master their aircraft, tactical training, multi‑crew cooperation, and much more at a fragment of the cost of existing full-mission projection domes and with almost no infrastructure requirements. Basically, the leap forward offered by the Xtal is like the difference between CRTs and MFDs.
VRgineers is a well-funded, Czech-US corporation, built wholly through entrepreneurial spirit while offering a revolutionary solution. Its success was based on the bravery, knowledge, skill, and sheer effort of Marek and his team. VRgineers is a brand new, paradigm-shifting example of the tradition of hard work and ingenuity.