First responders train with gaming technology

By Kathleen Hickey
Government Computer News

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Virtual reality and gaming technology increasingly are being used to train first responders to deal with natural disasters. As the cost of using the technology has dropped, specialists say, virtual reality technology has proved to be a useful tool to help first responders and counterterrorism agencies react quickly and appropriately to a variety of scenarios.

The technology's rapid rise has also been spurred by recent hardware and software improvements, officials who have used the systems say. Improved processor speeds and better graphics allow simulations to run on almost any PC, including laptops in the field.

Without the need for expensive hardware and with the ready availability of gaming technology, systems are now available to a wider range of first responders, including police and fire departments nationwide, in addition to other state, local and federal government agencies.

The Columbus, Ohio, police, for example, are working with Ohio University to build accurate, interactive models of 30 high-profile Columbus buildings and sites potentially susceptible to terrorist attacks or other threatening situations.

Police officials said they plan to launch the system this spring and move it to full operating status by fall 2009. The virtual reality pilot falls under the department's overall group of plans and preparations for homeland security response and recovery, said Lt. Fred Bowditch, the department's Terrorism Early Warning Group commander.

The virtual models will use new technologies, including 360-degree photography that provides views of the sites from every angle and immersive video, which allows real-world scenes to be recorded from every direction at the same time. In addition, software in the system provides 3-D user control of the viewing direction and variable playback speed. The system also incorporates the Global Positioning System and inertial guidance systems (IGS) for tracking and positioning information.

Columbus police and first responders would be able to access the data and models in the field via wireless laptop PC and at precinct buildings, calling up information tailored to a specific area.

The system uses IGS to track the positions of key entities when GPS satellite links aren't available. The advantage of an IGS is that it requires no external references to determine its position, orientation or velocity once it has been initialized, project planners say.

The system's technology architecture calls for the virtual models to contain embedded information about each building's history, owner, utility providers and contacts.

A project team will visit, photograph and video 15 sites in the first year and 15 in the second year, said Erin Roberts, external communications coordinator at Ohio University's Scripps College of Communications.

The university will also combine additional metadata, such as GPS data and measurements, with the images and add video game technology to the images. The gaming technology will allow the police to move around the images as if they were avatars — fully mobile virtual people — in a video game. Project designers expect the avatar feature will improve the interactive nature of the virtual reality system. In addition to crafting the software the virtual reality system will require, Ohio University plans to provide a backup server to the police department and will train officers and staff to use and maintain the system, Roberts said.

Virtual technology is also being used on a more widespread basis for training purposes. In many situations — such as with hazardous materials or use of judgmental force — it is impractical or dangerous to have individuals receive all their training in the field.

The National Fire Protection Association offers hazardousmaterials response training using virtual reality and video gaming technology.

The software, funded in part by the Homeland Security Department, features video gaming technology simulating real-life tactical terrorism-response scenarios.

First responders are trained on the system to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats; weapons of mass destruction; triage and other terrorism response issues.

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