Special Segment: The Future of Firefighting

November 16, 2010 (CHICAGO)

You have no doubt seen on football telecasts the first down yard marker that appears and disappears. It's a computer-generated overlay that's an example of what is called augmented reality. The use of that technology goes far beyond sport, and some Chicago high-tech innovators are now working to apply augmented reality to the future of firefighting.

"It's like going from zero to 100 miles an hour in a matter of seconds," said one firefighter. "There's about a million things going through your mind at the same time," said Andy Hoff, Downer's Grove Fire Department.

For firefighters - like those who fought this one in Downer's Grove last January - the battle is orchestrated chaos.

"Lots of talking, lots of communicating, lots of yelling, you're going to hear the lieutenant trying to make sure his crew is together," said John Christeson, Downer's Grove Fire Department.

Chaotic moments have always been, but modern-day fire science is changing the field of battle. Thermal imaging cameras that can tell where the beast lives and where people may be trapped are now considered vital.

In high rise-firefighting, technology can allow on-scene commanders to quickly produce building floor plans - a potential lifesaver. But what if those tools and more were available right inside a firefighter's mask?

A heads up display offers thermal imaging. Another shows what's left in the airpack. Another offers structure lay-out and firefighter position, which can be constantly updated through in helmet cameras and microprocessors.

"Think of Tony Stark in Ironman," said Dan Delaney, Tanagram Partners. "That sort of digital readouts that can provide firemen with helpful information from all the different data sources they have."

A Chicago high-tech innovation company called Tanagram is developing an augmented reality firefighter mask with a grant from Homeland Security. They were already working on similar technology for the military, and when a firefighter in Arizona said 'why not apply your military work to fire science,' Tanagram said OK.

"What we're doing is building an information system for firemen that unites a lot of disparate tools they use," said John Juhnke, Tanagram Partners. "It's the ability to superimpose data on top of what you see."

The challenge, of course, is providing a stream of valuable, manageable information, and not overwhelming a firefighter with bells, whistles and pictures that distract. It's got to work in a very unfriendly environment, and it's got to be affordable. The possibilities, though, are remarkable.

"We see the ability to track where the other firefighters are within the building," said Delaney.

"Even though technology is a great thing, we can't get away from the of knowing what's right and wrong with the smoke, how to read the building, knowing what fire's involved, but GPS inside a building an knowing where the firefighters are is fantastic," said Downer's Grove Fire Chief Jim Jackson.

"In the near term we're going to see it in first responder circumstances where the cost is where it's going to save lives … And then in the medium term you're going to see consumers saying, 'I want this stuff too,'" said Prof. David Gerding, Columbia College.

Fire departments don't have big budgets, so Tanagram is being challenged to build a super-mask that will cost around $5,000 apiece. The goal is to have the prototype ready by next May.

Tanagram is partnering with Innovega for the lens technology for Head Mounted Display (HMD) Augmented Reality. For more information, visit http://innovega-inc.com.
Lens demonstration video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khWE-GYccRg

More information on Tanagram Partners can be found at http://tanagrampartners.com. Tanagram Blog Augmented Reality Posts on Spill at http://spill.tanagram.com/?s=iarm.

For those interested in exploring Point Cloud Technology, more information is available at http://grail.cs.washington.edu/software/pmvs/.

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