NIST, FirstNet Launch Public-Safety Virtual Experience Center
Monday, May 16, 2022 | Comments

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) launched the Public Safety Immersive Test Center in Boulder, Colorado, to spur the development and deployment of technologies critical to effective public-safety response.

“When seconds count, situational awareness can be a matter of life or death for first responders,” said Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet Authority chief network and technology officer. “We are proud to partner with NIST on this state-of-the-art facility and provide first responders with an immersive virtual experience to help them prepare for those critical moments. The FirstNet Authority is dedicated to advancing technologies and innovative ways to ensure first responders have the tools they need for their life-saving mission.”

Through the partnership, NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division and the FirstNet Authority plan to enable research and development, education and training by offering the facility at no cost to public-safety agencies and organizations that support public-safety response efforts, including private sector and academic institutions. The facility is designed to help answer key research questions around the future of user interfaces and location services for public-safety training and operations.

“This facility enables us to take our research to the next level by allowing natural interactions,” said Scott Ledgerwood, leader of NIST PSCR’s user experience/user interface group. “Traditional virtual reality simulations required controllers for interaction, which didn’t translate well to real-life scenarios. In this new facility, users can walk or crawl throughout the space, physically touch walls and furniture, and pick up props like fire nozzles or dummies. This approach will improve measures and build confidence in the test results for translations of technologies to the real world.”

Located in the FirstNet Authority’s building, the center is approximately 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) of customized space equipped with a motion capture system, 42 high-speed optical tracking cameras, a variety of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) headsets, and gear and fixtures that add a tactile component to simulations. This equipment helps responders run through various scenarios, such as simulations of search and rescue activities or coordinated complex terrorist attacks.

The FirstNet Authority and NIST plan to update the space regularly with enhancements such as haptics and metrology, 5G, edge computing, WebXR capabilities that allow virtual and augmented realities to be combined, and other technological advances for public-safety operations.

Technology developers will have the opportunity to test their equipment in realistic scenarios, and first responders will also be able to participate.

“The center is giving us a glimpse into the future,” said Sterling Folden, deputy chief, Mountain View (Colorado) Fire and Rescue. “It’s very promising to see the technology that is being invested in to augment whatever we do and the tools we’ll have in the future to make our citizens safer. All these forms of technology from the facility have the opportunity to be implemented in the field. Some lend themselves better to training like VR, but augmented reality can be implemented in the field sooner rather than later and make a big difference for people.”

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