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CHARIoT Challenge Combines Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things for First Responders

First responders need to make fast decisions based on the best information they have available. Police, fire, and EMS crews usually rely on radio communication channels along with dispatch and eyewitness reports for that information. But this is the Internet Age. As data from the Internet of Things devices become more prevalent, public safety could use that data to save more lives.

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the myriad of data-gathering, internet-connected sensors, from smartwatches and thermostats to entire smart city systems. In an emergency, data from these devices could tell first responders the location of an individual in distress or traffic disruptions on the route to a medical emergency.

Integrating relevant IoT sensor data into first responders’ daily operations could be hugely beneficial. With access to the right information in the right way, first responders could deploy their resources more effectively, decreasing the time it takes to make lifesaving decisions during an emergency.

Unfortunately, even if first responders had access to these IoT data streams today, tools specific to public safety needs that could be used to visualize this data, like augmented reality (AR), do not exist. Most AR interfaces have not been designed with a first responder in mind, and the hardware is not made for the rough and rugged environments they face.

That is why NIST implemented the CHARIoT Challenge, which aimed to advance first responder communications by testing how to present IoT data without overloading the user or hindering their job performance.

CHARIoT: Integrating IoT Data Streams With AR Interfaces

CHARIoT’s mission was to design AR interfaces that would leverage IoT-based sensor streams for first responders. Competitors could engage in one of two tracks: IoT solutions or intuitive AR interfaces. The CHARIoT Challenge launched in March 2020 as a four-phase, dual-track prize challenge competition that offered up to $1.1 million in cash prizes.

The aim of the IoT track was to support first responders’ situational awareness by providing environmental information and data not currently available to them. In the competition, innovators emulated smart city data for emergency scenarios and developed IoT data sets that provided first responders access to smart building and smart city data streams.

The second track built AR interfaces for public safety, in which developers conveyed actionable information to incident command without distractions or cognitive overload. Solutions were designed to keep the first responder user at the forefront of technological development, focusing on the challenges of the public safety use case. Each AR contestant was required to partner with a public safety representative or organization to ensure that the interfaces were designed with and for first responders.

This AR interface shows the overlay of what a first responder would see, including alerts, objectives, and a walking path in the desired direction.

Contestants designed solutions around four emergency scenarios: an active shooter, flooding, a mass transit accident, and a wildfire, and for two different public safety perspectives: an incident commander and a boots-on-the-ground first responder. The purpose of designing around these scenarios was to provide real-world context for situations that are not accounted for in commercial products.

The final CHARIoT event took place in September 2021. Eleven AR finalists submitted 35 prototypes for final evaluation, enabling the challenge judges and subject matter experts to assess the usability of each interface in terms of how well it supported the public safety tasks and scenarios. Two IoT finalists’ emulated data was incorporated in the challenge data set and then visualized by the final AR teams when designing their interfaces.

What made the finalists’ designs successful was a balance between function and streamlining the necessary data. Tomorrow’s post will dive into how the winners struck that balance.