In a time when technology is central to military operations, ensuring the security of advanced innovations is paramount—and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long recognized this need and has recently launched the Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) program.

This groundbreaking initiative focuses on improving the security of US military mixed reality (MR) solutions against cognitive exploits, thus ensuring the safety and effectiveness of military personnel operating in the virtual domain.

Cognitive Exploits: Unmasking the Threat

Cognitive exploits, in the context of military mixed reality, are digital assaults that target the connection between users and their virtual equipment. These diverse exploits can have severe consequences, affecting the performance, well-being, and trust of military personnel in MR platforms.

Some known cognitive exploits include:

1 | Real-World Object Planting. This tactic involves planting real-world objects in the virtual environment, cluttering the projected displays, and creating user confusion. It can also lead to false alarms and distract military personnel.

Virtual reality training
Soldiers during a virtual reality training, April 2013 (Image source: DVIDS)

2 | Information Flooding. Overwhelming users with excessive information can induce motion sickness and reduce the effectiveness of MR systems. It can make military personnel physically ill and unable to perform their duties effectively.

3 | Adding Virtual Data for Distraction. Injecting virtual data that distracts users from critical information and tasks can compromise the success of military missions. It can cause anxiety and reduce trust in MR platforms.

The Effects of Cognitive Exploits

The consequences of cognitive exploits are far-reaching and can significantly impact military operations. Some of these effects include:

1 | Cybersickness. Cognitive exploits can lead to cybersickness, a condition akin to motion sickness, which can incapacitate military personnel operating MR systems.

2 | Emotional Manipulation. Manipulating the virtual environment can induce emotional responses, which may not be conducive to effective decision-making in critical situations.

3 | Anxiety. Cognitive exploits can create anxiety among users, leading to a less stable and effective working environment.

4 | Reduced Trust in MR Platforms. When cognitive exploits are successful, military personnel may begin to doubt the reliability of MR platforms, which can have a cascading effect on their ability to execute tasks.

Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) Program: A Solution

Recognizing the critical need to address cognitive exploits, DARPA initiated the Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) program. This program aims to research and test mathematical approaches, often referred to as “formal methods,” to produce solutions that can secure MR system designs against cognitive attacks.

The primary goals of the ICS program are to:

1 | Mitigate Potential Threats. ICS seeks to identify and mitigate potential threats to military personnel operating in the virtual domain.

2 | Research Formal Methods. The program explores the use of formal methods, which rely on rigorous mathematical development practices, to enhance the security of MR systems.

XR-3 mixed reality headset
Varjo XR-3 mixed reality headset (Image source: DVIDS)

3 | Smooth Operation. By improving the security of MR systems, ICS ensures that these technologies operate smoothly and effectively in military missions.

Dr. Matthew Wilding, the ICS Program Manager at DARPA, highlights the importance of this initiative.

“We need to develop methods to protect mixed reality systems before systems lacking protections are pervasive,” Dr. Wilding explained. “This program will show how to protect personnel using rigorous, math-based development practices that enable MR adoption plans in [Department of Defense] organizations.”

Studying User Behaviors for Greater Understanding

To create effective security solutions, the ICS program will study user behaviors within the immersive MR setup and will contribute to formalizing data on how people behave in such environments.

By understanding user behaviors, the program can develop security measures tailored to military personnel’s needs and vulnerabilities.

Dr. Wilding emphasizes that ICS is not limited to a single MR system.

Instead, proposers will work with various commercial technologies that perform different MR-related tasks, ensuring the program’s findings and solutions are applied across a wide spectrum of MR applications.

The Two-Phase Approach

The ICS program will run for three years and consists of two phases:

Phase 1 | Proven Solutions and Supporting Models

In the initial phase, the program will focus on fabricating proven solutions and developing models that further our understanding of desirable properties for MR systems.

This phase sets the foundation for creating effective security measures.

Phase 2 | Prototype Development

The second phase builds on the results from the first phase. It aims to validate the utility of these solutions in MR systems. Developers will have to create prototypes using commercially available hardware and software to test the effectiveness of these solutions in reducing vulnerabilities to cognitive exploits.


DARPA’s Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) program represents a significant step in enhancing the security of military mixed reality (MR) solutions. By addressing the threats posed by cognitive exploits, this program ensures the safety and effectiveness of military personnel operating in the virtual domain.

As technology continues to play a pivotal role in military operations, initiatives like ICS become paramount to national security. They allow the military to leverage MR capabilities with confidence and resilience against digital threats.