Reality in Virtual Reality

Training for the future

United Kingdom Fire Services attending the launch of VR in LFRS. (Photos by author.)

Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) is the first United Kingdom fire and rescue service to explore the potential of virtual reality (VR) technology, and it recently created a ground-breaking 360-degree public safety film (VF4-360) simulating a fatal road traffic collision.

Realistic Insight

The service is using VR to give young drivers an insight into a realistic driving environment from a front seat passenger’s perspective. The VF4-360 educational experience provides the new, young driver with a realistic, totally immersive look at the pre-crash causation factors, followed by post-crash emergency services rescue intervention—all incorporated using 360-degree filming technology, where the wearer can look around the whole scene. Unlike traditional TV, where you look at a flat 2D screen in front of you, you have the ability to look left and right to see everything that is happening around you.

To engage young drivers, LFRS has produced this road safety film designed to be watched through a new VR headset, the Gear VR. The use of a VR headset allows young drivers to be involved in a full crash scene extrication, from the arrival of the emergency service to being talked through the process by the paramedics at hand.

The VF4-360 road safety educational film is the first of its kind in Europe and is now being used worldwide for educating new, young drivers—in an effort to reduce the number of young drivers killed and seriously injured on our roads.

I am the LFRS watch manager for road safety and virtual reality; the VF4-360 film has exceeded all our expectations and is proving to be a fantastic resource now being used all over the world by fire, police, law enforcement agencies, and local authorities. The film gives the young drivers and passengers an insight to the possible consequences of speeding and distraction while driving and gives a true-to-life experience of being trapped in a crashed vehicle; this is the closest you will ever want to get to the real thing.

Forming a Partnership

A chance meeting between me and Alex Harvey, creative director for RiVR, at the Emergency Services Show at the NEC in Birmingham, United Kingdom, led to several phone calls and discussions. A visit to the RiVR office and a demonstration by Harvey highlighted a great opportunity to look at changing training methods currently used for fire investigation.

LFRS formed a partnership with RiVR, a leading developer of photorealistic VR experiences. Both are now breaking new ground and pushing the boundaries of training. By using the very best new technology alongside specialized skills to provide actual room-size VR training environments with cutting edge technology, RiVR can reproduce real scenes from different incidents using a realistic process to produce real life training scenarios for the emergency services.

Above: A senior LFRS officer trying out the VR training demonstration. Below: Capturing real fire scenes.

Above: A senior LFRS officer trying out the VR training demonstration.

Below: Capturing real fire scenes.

Above: A senior LFRS officer trying out the VR training demonstration. Below: Capturing real fire scenes.

Virtual Training Environments

LFRS have now become the fire service lead on VR in the United Kingdom, building an experience for emergency service staff to train in safer environments. Using the HTC Vive VR headset, in partnership with RiVR, photogrammetry is used to create photorealistic environments for firefighters, which are safer and more cost-effective and require less resources to run.

The process of creating these virtual training environments begins with the capture of the images themselves, which normally takes place at the scene, which can then be reproduced to create specific environments. These are then processed by RiVR’s own photogrammetry solution, through which the environment is mapped out and the geometry of the space established. The simulations are kept on a hard drive, which users carry behind them using a backpack.

The idea is to make the experience as exhilarating and truly “real” as possible so, for instance, you get the same fear as you would if you looked down from a great height. If firefighters get this realistic an experience, we could fundamentally influence and accelerate learning.

Next-Generation Training Techniques

LFRS has tried to move away from traditional tried and tested training methods and is looking at how we can train firefighters from not just the United Kingdom but all over the world—in environments that are real and immersive. They understand this is a fast-emerging market and the technological advances are changing weekly. The partnership between LFRS and RiVR is technology-led, looking at haptics and force feedback (tactile), surround sound acoustics (auditory), and smell replication (olfactory).

This is the next generation of training techniques, encapsulating realism and repeatability, enhancing the speed that humans learn and retain skills. The goal is to train firefighters in the most realistic training situations, making them think and make decisions as they would at a real incident. This will test their ability to follow procedures in challenging environments, which will produce the most effective firefighters.

One of the overriding factors with this type of VR training is that it is safe; if a firefighter makes a mistake, there is no risk—just press “reset” and start again. The instructor can talk to the firefighter through radio communications and then make the decision to continue or reset and the training session returns to the start, ready for the firefighter to have another attempt at completing the scenario safely.

The benefits of VR include the following:

• Realism allows the brain to learn and develop muscle memory for repetitive tasks and establishes a deep-rooted knowledge of how and where items are used within the environment.

• Scenes can be reset, meaning you can restart the scenario at any point. Mistakes can be made and corrected safely.

• Trainees, as well as experienced firefighters, can virtually enter hazardous scenarios safely and repeat scenes at will.

The fire investigation environment will have the capability of using the technology for firefighter and officer accreditation and reaccreditation as well as a variety of different scenarios in teaching and training. This technology could possibly lead to some of the biggest changes in the way the United Kingdom Fire Services conducts training.

By Paul Speight

Paul Speight joined Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) in 1988. After serving 16 years at many fire and rescue stations as a firefighter and crew manager, he transferred into the Community Safety team as watch manager, most recently becoming the watch manager for road safety and virtual reality.

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