From Tactical to Practical

LookSea’s “augmented reality” is a major innovation in marine navigation, with roots both usual and unusual.

By Ben Ellison


 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Looksea
• Part 2: Looksea
• Part 3: Looksea

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While it’s obvious that military vessels face much more difficult navigation challenges than we recreational boaters do, consider how those challenges compound as the boats get ever faster and the amount of relevant data multiplies. Specifically, picture yourself at the helm of an 88-foot LCAC—a “Landing Craft, Air Cushioned” in Navy-speak, the hairy hovercraft pictured at left to us lubbers—doing 40-plus knots headed straight at a hostile coastline. You have precise and constantly updated info on your proposed route and nearby hazards like reefs, mines, and fellow flying LCACs. But how do you put it all together in your head fast enough, especially given the noise and spray generated by your 16,000 hp of lift and propulsion fans, and especially if some of your “brain cycles” are needed elsewhere, like trying to avoid incoming fire?

No doubt the Navy uses the best chartplotters and radars, but don’t you think it’s also continually searching for even better tools? Well, it turns out that after a decade of R&D, the LCAC fleet is in advanced testing of a remarkable system called ARVCOP, or Augmented Reality Visualization of the Common Operational Picture. That’s a long name for the essentially simple idea of geo-referencing video camera output and then overlaying it with critical info. The system works so well that other branches of the Navy are interested, too, as are the Army and Coast Guard. More important, ARVCOP’s primary creator, a contract R&D lab called Technology Systems Inc. (TSI), has decided to offer “augmented reality” navigation to yachtsmen, starting a new company with the more civilian title of LookSea and an initial $40,000 “Pro” product aimed at megayachts.

I was intrigued with LookSea Pro when it debuted at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last fall. Since then I’ve taken a test ride in “perfect” conditions—blowing like stink and raining sideways—and also toured the TSI/LookSea offices with founder Chuck Benton. Both trips were easy because Benton’s operation is located just down the coast from me in Wiscasset, Maine (which tickles me). At any rate, and state pride aside, I now concur with Benton that the LookSea idea is valuable enough—like radar and GPS before it—to transcend from mission-critical military to everyday cruising, or in his words “from tactical to practical.”

Next page > Part 2: LookSea lays it out like an easy video game—integration simplified, brain cycles saved! > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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