PSCR Challenge Explores Use of Touch-Based Sensors for First Responders
Tuesday, November 19, 2019 | Comments
A team from Carnegie Mellon University won Public Safety Communications Research’s (PSCR) 2019 Haptic Interfaces for Public-Safety challenge, while Haply placed second in the challenge.

During the five phases of the challenge, teams worked to develop a haptic interface, which relies on touch to convey information to public-safety personnel. For example, a haptic interface could help a firefighter who can’t see through thick smoke navigate a building by providing feedback on what hallway to turn down.

Carnegie Mellon won with a helmet band with actuators that could provide first responders with a variety of directions to guide them.

The four finalists of the competition traveled to the West Metro Fire Training Center in Lakewood, Colorado, Nov. 5 to have their prototype interfaces tested by four judges and two subject matter experts (SMEs), which included three active-duty firefighters. PSCR Chief Dereck Orr and First Responder Network Authority Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Jeff Brachter were also among the judges.

Each of the judges donned about 50 pounds of firefighter protective equipment and then used each haptic interface to help navigate a simulated fireground, locate a victim and rescue that person, said Scott Ledgerwood, user interface and user experience lead for PSCR.

The finalists brought several different varieties of interfaces to the finals. Two teams developed glove and sleeve combinations that used vibrations to convey information. Meanwhile, the other two teams brought helmet-mounted interfaces: Carnegie Mellon’s helmet band and another interface that attached to the back of a helmet and tapped on the user’s neck to convey information to a first responder, said Ledgerwood.

Teams were scored on both quantitative factors such as how long it took to reach a victim and exit the building and qualitative factors such as how the interface felt to wear, how it was attached, form factor and more.

Prior to the finals, which was the fifth phase of the competition, eight competitors took part in phase four in August. That phase involved judges taking the developed prototypes through virtual reality (VR) scenarios.

Four of the eight competitors were then selected to move forward and received prize money intended to help them tweak and improve their interfaces before the final round of the competition.

“Essentially, we were awarding them seed funding to help them continue their development,” Ledgerwood said.

There were two types of competitors in the competition: haptic developers and haptic technology providers. During an early stage of the competition, developers and providers had the opportunity to team up. Each of the three providers selected for the challenge could team up with up to three of the nine developers selected for the competition. Developers could also choose not to work with haptic providers and develop everything from the ground up by themselves, said Orr.

The top two teams, Carnegie Mellon and Haply, both chose to work on their own and develop their solutions from the ground up. Carnegie Mellon received $25,000 for first place and another $3,500 because the judges selected its prototype as the most commercially promising among developers. Haply received $20,000 for second place and another $2,500 for having the most creative interface for public-safety requirements. ENGR Dynamics received $15,000 for placing third, and Team DSGN received $10,000 for placing fourth.

Engineering Acoustics, which worked with ENGR, received $20,000 for being the top provider, as well as $3,500 for having the most commercially promising technology among providers. Janus Research Group, which worked with Team DSGN received $10,000.

Because the interfaces are prototypes, the haptic interfaces are still likely several years away from being usable by first responders in the field. But one of PSCR’s focuses is providing business development assistance to technology innovators to help them eventually bring those products to first responders.

“With this challenge, a lot of it was early prototypes that aren’t ready to be deployed in the field this year or next,” said Ledgerwood. “But, we think that if we can get them the funding and connected to the right people, they can continue to develop these and get them in the hands of first responders in the next few years.”

Four other entities — the FirstNet Authority; FirstNet, built with AT&T; MSA Safety; and West Metro Fire — co-sponsored the event, and PSCR hopes those connections can help the competitors in their future product development.

Additionally, much of the work PSCR is doing to better outfit public-safety personnel for their jobs using future technology requires a variety of building blocks, many of which PSCR is working on simultaneously with other challenges and projects, Orr said. In the case of haptic interfaces, effective indoor location technology — another PSCR research area — will be essential in helping the haptic interfaces provide vital information to first responders.

PSCR is also using this challenge and other research to investigate things such as whether testing and prototyping in VR environments can translate to effective product performance in real-life situations, Ledgerwood said. As part of the haptic challenge, PSCR gathered a variety of data on the VR test environment and plans to comb through it to fully examine that question.

Orr, who was a judge for both phases four and five, said he thinks the challenge at least shows some of the potential for VR testing and validation. Between the VR phase and real-world finals, the teams took some of the feedback from the VR round and used that to make significant performance improvements for the final round, he said.

Overall, the challenge finals allowed the developers to gain valuable first responder feedback, while first responders had the opportunity to test technology that they might be skeptical about.

“Skepticism is very healthy and good in these cases, but talking to them at the end of the challenge, I feel like every one of the them felt this definitely has a place in the toolbox for them,” said Orr.

PSCR launched the challenge in March. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 apportioned $300 million to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for PSCR public-safety technology research and development.

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