Thursday, September 24, 2009

Augmented Reality--Emerging Technology for Emergency Management

The focus of this blog is emergency management and crisis communication. You don't have to read too many posts to realize that technology changes are driving this bus. Emergency management professionals and communicators alike face the challenge of keeping up with emerging technology. All we have to do is look at how email, instant messaging, search engines, social media, cellphones, cell cameras, etc. have all dramatically changed how crisis communication and emergency management itself is done. Twitter is just the latest of many innovations to turn urgent public communication on its head.

But, what's next? There are a great many innovations that look to further change the rules of the game. Telephony blended with internet communication management is one of them--virtual call centers are about to erupt. The use of video is not new, but will become even more significant with the common and easy use made possible through the new generation of smart phones powered by 3G data networks. But, now I want to introduce you to a new innovation that I think may have real significance for public warnings and emergency communication in the future: Augmented reality.

You will be hearing more and more about augmented reality (AR) in the future. The concept is relatively simple. Video equipped smartphones can capture video images of whatever you are seeing--your surroundings in the typical applications. So, say you are standing on a street corner in New York City and you use your iphone's camera to look around. Augmented reality takes a layer of data and overlays that on the image, corresponding it to GIS information it has from your location and where you are pointing your camera. What data? Well, one version has you playing 3D Pacman on the streets of NYC. A brand new one just out is called Bionic Eye and it overlays more helpful information such as where the nearest subway stop is located and how far and which direction is the nearest Starbucks. Have a look at this video demo yourself. If you want, just go to YouTube and enter "bionic eye."

OK, nifty, cool and all that stuff. What does this have to do with emergency communications? Plenty. One rule of innovation is: what becomes possible becomes expected or demanded. Once FedEx showed you could get a package around the country in a day, it quickly became demanded and expected. Once Virginia Tech students realized that technology was there to alert them to a shooting in a classroom building, not only that campus but every campus in the country got the technology to do instant text and phone alerts. Once members of the public realize the technology is available to help them find the nearest tube station or coffee shop, how will you answer the question of where they can find a shelter in a storm, the fastest way to evacuate, location for clean water, nearest medical facilities with empty beds, closest location to get flu shot, etc, etc, etc.

I know many would just as soon the technology bus slow down a little. It's not, and that means we all have to keep moving.

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