It's hardly over yet, but this is shaping up to be the year virtual reality technology meets the real world.
We've already seen how the immersive technology has grown out from video games and into consumer applications ranging from virtual automobile test drives to treating behavioral disorders.
Now Motorola Solutions is developing a system that uses virtual reality to assist first responders in dealing with complex emergency situations.
Already a leader in the first responder community with its communications systems, body cameras and other technologies, Motorola engineers have developed a "virtual command center" that can immerse an emergency services commander into a real-time view of an incident or situation, giving the same perspective of the officers at the scene, as well as the information and intelligence needed to make the best decisions in dealing with the situation. The system, in the testing stages, also provides the commander with the status and locations of field officers, as well as instant communication with them.
LanTing Garra, innovation design director and chief technical officer at Motorola Solutions and the leader of the VR project, likens it to "bringing the command center to the scene."
"The command center personnel are asking the front line officers questions like "what's your location?' or 'what does the suspect look like?,'" Garra said. "If you think about it, a lot of it is because the command center personnel are trying to visualize the scene through verbal communication."
The commander uses Occulus Rift goggles to view a customizable array of monitors that provide a comprehensive view of the situation. The monitors can provide floor plans or street view maps that show where officers are on the scene; each officer's status and views from their bodycams or dashboard cams; traffic or security cameras; and views from 360-degree cameras or cameras mounted on drones.
"It gives a whole new view at the scene," Garra said. "It's more like you're there, then you can share the situational awareness the same as the officers who are at the scene."
Even more unique is the commander's ability to control everything in the system with eye movements. Motorola is using technology from California-based Eyefluence that allows the user to control and manipulate what he sees by just looking at an image. The commander can adjust monitor sizes, zoom in and out or pivot cameras, or focus on something on a monitor for further investigation.As an additional piece to the platform, Motorola's also working on eyewear for field officers that, with the Eyefluence technology, allows both the officer and commander to share the same camera view and communicate with one another through eye movements.
"Now they can look at a person at a scene and have conversation," Garra said. "The commander would look at a person and not have to describe him. He can look at the guy and tell the officer 'follow him.'
"It's a mutual eye gaze that's sharing information and is very powerful as well."
The major advantage of the virtual command center is that the commander no longer needs to be in a physical command building to obtain all this information. The system can be used in the field as well, and Garra notes it could be used to bring in experts anywhere in the world who can help provide more information or advise on the situation.
The virtual command center was demonstrated last month at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials convention in Orlando, and the concept met with a lot of positive response, Garra said.
"Most of the feedback, especially after people tried it, was how easy it was to use," she said. "Within 30 seconds, they were able to handle eye interaction and able to freely roam and navigate like they knew the system."
Motorola does not have a timeline for bringing the system to market, as Garra notes there are still "a lot of technological challenges we're going through already and there some more we'll be going through."
But given the positive feedback and it's ease of use with eye tracking technology, it's likely virtual reality will be a very real part of the first responder's toolbox in the not-too-distant future.