What is “Haptics” and How is it Helping Firefighters Do Their Jobs?

Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of the word, “haptics”. Or if you have, you may have no idea what it means. But if you’ve ever played with a Wii or spent a quarter in a video arcade, then you know exactly what haptics is all about. Haptics (pronounced HAP-tiks) is the science of applying touch (tactile) sensation and control interaction with computer applications. And it is fast on its way to becoming a revolutionary means of training firefighters by helping make virtual reality training more real than ever.

Good Vibrations: You’ll Know It When You Feel It

According to WhatIs.com, haptics is derived from the Greek word haptein meaning, “to fasten”. Haptical refers to anything relating to the sense of touch. In digital technology, haptics most often refers to a vibration or other sensation received from a computer or other electronic device. Think about the vibration of your phone when you turn the sound off and receive a call or social media alert. In the world of virtual reality, haptics refers to an input or output device that senses the body’s movements by means of physical contact with the user. Think joysticks. Haptics is used in planes to shake the control yoke – a sign pilots can’t ignore – when the plane is about to stall. Effectively, haptics is to touch what optics is to sight.

The first haptics patents go back to the 1960s with companies like Northrup Grumman and Bell Labs who were at the forefront of developing the technology. Haptic technology was originally developed for the military to assist in digital simulation for training. Today, these same technologies are being used in exciting new ways to help firefighters train for their jobs.

Digital Simulation More Valuable and Viable Than Ever

Every firefighter who has ever held a fully charged hose in their gloved hands during a real fire or live training – with blistering heat, blinding smoke and thousands of gallons of highly pressurized water blasting through that nozzle – understands the value of each one of these experiences. It requires months, sometimes years, for newbies to really learn to think, move and communicate in the midst of these kinds of conditions.

Unfortunately, due to things like budget cuts and emissions controls that limit live training, new firefighters have fewer opportunities to acclimate themselves to these kinds of challenging conditions which all of us must eventually face – often with our lives and the lives of others on the line. Real fire emergencies have also been in decline for years, depriving new recruits of experience, and experienced firefighters, ample opportunities to maintain their skill sets. Fortunately, digital simulation is increasingly providing a viable alternative, one that is further enhanced by haptic technology.

Some firefighters may be skeptical. There’s no question that it’s difficult to replicate the tactile feel and sensory overload of an actual fire. But it’s not impossible to get very close. And today’s young firefighters are far more apt to embrace digital technology in their professional development, as these “digital natives” have not only grown up using digital technology, but having been immersed in it from birth.

The Advantages of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation that immerses users in seemingly real life digital environments. The advantages of simulators are hard to ignore. In addition to providing virtually unlimited access to training, the systems are eminently flexible. A wide variety of scenarios from structure fires to industrial, electrical and natural gas fires can be created. This can include everything from simulated residential environments, high-rises, factories, warehouses, and automobiles. There are no adverse environmental affects, and little or no risk of injury. Simulators also record an abundance of information, providing data-rich feedback for training.

Getting VR Right Using Haptics

Of course, the trick to effective simulation is, well, effective simulation! Making the simulated events as real as possible. That’s where haptics come in. It’s one thing to put on goggles or step inside a room, and into a visual virtual environment. There’s much that can be learned about things such as ventilation and understanding how smoke and fire might react to various scenarios in such settings. But when you can augment that experience by dressing participants in real turnout gear with personal protection equipment, and put a real hose nozzle in their hands, then you’re upping that tactile experience. And it doesn’t stop there. Modern haptic simulation technology can add heat to the equation (from sensors built inside the jacket) and mimic the thrust of pressurized hoses and nozzles to create even more realistic conditions for users.

New Products Showcase Haptic Innovation

HTC’s new FLAIM Trainer™ is one such product that has garnered much attention since being unveiled at last year’s international Consumer Electronics Show. The haptically-enabled hot fire training system was developed by Associate Professor James Mullins within the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation at Deakin University in Australia. The FLAIM Trainer™ system includes a head mounted breathing apparatus kit that incorporates a virtual reality display, a hose-line system and encapsulating hose and brand/nozzle, and protective clothing with heat-generating components. The closer you get to the virtual flames, the more the jacket heats up. The hose creates a realistic sense of water pressure as the user puts out the fire and the longer you take, the denser the smoke gets! The combination effectively uses industry standard equipment to train with real world systems in the virtual environment.

Burgeoning Technology Helping Firefighters Prepare & Perform

The trend of using virtual and augmented reality in the workplace and in training and has been growing rapidly for the past five years, and the incorporation of more haptic technology is certain to follow. The more accurately we can recreate the physical world that we experience through each of our five senses, the more effective we can be in learning how to operate in any condition.

Although it’s impossible to recreate the conditions of actual fire and life-or-death emergency with so many variables at play in each occurrence, we can continue to rely upon advances in virtual reality and technology to help us be as prepared as possible to perform in these situations – armed with greater knowledge and yes, even experience (virtually speaking).

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