Firefighters risk their lives every day. The hazard of entering a smoke-filled building with zero visibility, is something most of us cannot even imagine. While technology has made strides in so many aspects of our lives, yet most existing solutions remain unaligned with the real world needs of our firefighters and first responders.
Ashish Jain from Kairos Pulse had a talk with Dr. John Long, CTO at Qwake technologies. You can hear the podcast here. Let’s dig into details that will help to align exciting facts on our learning behavior, human performance and distress, the role of computer vision and 5G technology and the adoption challenges of new technologies by fire departments. We try to go beyond the buzzwords and connect the dots between technology, its business impact and challenges in a way that is both accessible and thought-provoking.
Ashish: Hi John, so let’s start with a little about yourself and the problem that we are going to address.
John: Hi Ashish, so I’m the CTO of Qwake technologies and we’re trying to solve a really important problem. In a fire it’s the smoke that kills you, neither the fire itself nor the flames. The firefighters can’t see in those conditions because of the smoke. They get on their hands and knees, tap against the wall, looking for victims. There’s some technology that exists out in the market like handheld thermal cameras in particular. At Qwake, “C-Thru” attempts to improve the interface for using thermal cameras by combining them with modern display technology like augmented reality, heads up displays and bring in a connected piece that streams the thermal feed of the firefighter back for the incident commander. It creates a kind of connected first-responder group that will be a lot more effective at keeping victims in distress safe.
My background is in behavioral neuroscience and computer vision. I have about a 20 year career in neuroscience and my emphasis was on learning and the behaviors related to learning. An aspect that you have to take into consideration is stress, and how distractions and anxiety can really disrupt the learning process. So I did my under graduation and PhD at UC Berkeley (go bears!) under Dr Jose Carmina.
Slowly, I got into advanced sensor technology as well. After I finished my PhD, I went to the New York medical center and the learning and memory lab of Gyorgy Buzsaki where I made a multi-camera system for tracking our subjects as we were studying the area of the brain called the hippocampus which is responsible for memory formation. We started exploring image processing, high speed computing and I started getting more interested in immediately impactful technology and less interested basic research publication.
And then I met the CEO, my co-founder partner, Sam Cossman, who was doing some volcano explorations of all things and he couldn’t see through as he was rappelling down the face of a volcano. And he wanted hands-free thermal and it didn’t exist at that time. That led him to our other co-founder Ömer Haciomeroglu, who’s quite an excellent industrial designer who had made a concept for a helmet and a smoke diamond. But neither of them were technologists who actually could build it. So back in the fall of 2015, I got a call from Sam Cossman offering to take me out to brunch to pitch an idea. And the rest is history. [Listen to the full podcast here]
A: That’s some story, John. Tell us a little bit about this product that you built. How do you think this has been possible and what role do you think 5G has played in it?
Dr. J: C-Thru uses thermal imaging cameras and augmented reality to make it so firefighters can see through the smoke. It uses image processing that is optimized, relative to my background and early vision and my understanding about how the brain can recognize shape and contour, which is necessary for navigation more quickly than object identity and recognition.
So we strip a lot of the details away and we just give it a cartoon-like line drawing that is just what you need to get from A to B. We also do onboard camera tracking so that if the fire service member under the extreme stress loses their way, they can know that their system has been keeping track of their trajectory. The assets have connectivity and that allows that initial, what we call, assisted perception augmenting – the abilities of the fire service member through advent sensor technology can onboard computing. The connectivity enables video streaming that the firefighter in the flames is seen to their commander outside.
Current scenario is if you’re a commander sending your people in harm’s way, they run into a smoke-filled building and your only lifeline is the talk radios, which is fine to a certain extent, but I research shows when you’re really stressed out, your verbal fluency goes down.
When you’re really stressed out and those moments where people are most concerned about you, unfortunately we can’t find the words well.
Being able to stream out the video lowers that communication burden cause an incident commander, can just click on your stream on a tablet and see what you’re seeing.Your first responder team becomes a dynamic filming crew that is on the ground mapping the environment of the emergency zone in real time, giving you that actual information that allows the incident commander and his team to organize and coordinate more effectively. I find this really interesting from human organization perspective. You end up having enhanced frontline responders, increase group coordination and hopefully resulting in the future where emergencies are managed extremely efficiently.
A: That’s pretty interesting. And when you talk about the connectivity piece, that’s where 5G is coming into play, allowing you to stream all that dynamic data, the video streams, back into the command center?
Dr. J: Definitely, I mean with current 4G we can handle small groups. Maybe an engine of three or four people. But as soon as you have a larger event that begins to scale, you’re dealing with a lot more video data here. You need to be able to ram a lot of data through and process it quickly. That’s where the combination of the bandwidth of 5G with the low latency tech, so-called, the edge computing becomes very useful.
A: And where is this edge sitting? Is that sitting in the firefighters truck, in the data center or where is it?
Dr. J: First and foremost, it’s important to be clear that the thing that differentiates the edge computing from the standard kind of cloud service computing is that it’s within the Verizon network. It’s within network servers – now that is up to Verizon or where the network provider decide where those are. From my perspective, the only thing I want is that, it’s the localizers in the region that I’m interested and operating in, whether it’s California or New York, and that I can have a fairly good quality of service guarantees. So is it on the truck? Is it in the lamp post? Is it base stations around? I mean that’s the future Verizon’s looking towards. But the main thing that I’m excited about is, we at Qwake Technologies are deploying our technologies. We are not in the market yet. We’re going to be doing a pilot this coming spring of 2020 with the Boston fire department. And then we’ll begin to go through the final certification process to go to market. Eventually we’re going to do initial market deployments on 4G and then as 5G matures, we can do the 5G radios and then really expand out. I think our time frames line up with Verizon. [Conversation with Verizon’s Head of Product, David Strumwasser]
A: Okay. Now, one thing which you and I had the discussion is that a lot of time products come to market, just because it’s a cool technology, right? How did you come up with this product and have you talked to any fire departments and understood their perspective? What kind of market validation have you done understanding whether this is really a problem for the firefighters or the PR or the people you’re trying to solve this problem for?
Dr. J: Yeah, so I’d like to emphasize my background is also very much in behavioral neuroscience, right? So that comes with a certain education and methodology.
You better know if you’re making a piece of technology, your user’s behavior, what their needs are, their understanding of the problem; step back, watch them do their work and objectively see the problems they face. Study your intended consumer, your intended user, and then make the technology to them.
A: How big of a problem is it? How many firefighters or departments are we talking about? Just in the U.S. and maybe globally?
Dr. J: Well, in the U.S. there are over 27,000 fire departments. You know, a lot of them range from full-time workers to a lot of volunteers in fire departments. There are 250 big ones. I live in New York city and not a week goes by that you don’t hear about a loss of life, either people in a burning building or fire service member dying either immediately from some accident or from the carcinogens that cause cancer due to exposure to these toxic environments over the course of their lifetime. So if we can create a technology that saves lives, both of the victims of fire events as well as reducing the exposure of firefighters and cancer risk over the course of their life, I think that’s a big enough problem to work on.
A: Is it like a special type of equipment the firefighters need to carry? Is this like a smart glass?
Dr. J: Yeah, so we have two embodiments that we’re working on right now. One is an in-mask system that is built to integrate into something called the self-contained breathing apparatus that firefighters wear. It is the mask, breathing tube and air tank that you see them wearing when they go into a burning building. We’re also making a helmet clip-on accessory, like a flashlight that they already have attached to their helmet. Same software stack, same sensors with a different form factor. The latter allows us to get into the market and to sell to whomever pretty quickly. The in-mask system is trickier from a regulatory perspective because it’s a life critical piece of technology. Our first piece in the market will be the helmet clip.
A: In any technology that comes out there’s always an adoption curve and there’s an education that needs to be done in the mass market. Where do you see the challenges there?
Dr. J: Fortunately, AR in gaming and in the automotive industry actually has really driven down the cost of a lot of the core components. So I think we can hit the price point. What I worry about is firefighters break stuff. These are big powerful people who carry a lot of gear and are trained to grab human bodies and drag them out quickly. You know, we spend a lot of time, testing the environmental aspects, like the heat, the humidity, drop testing and just how much after market service we’re going to have. And we’re doing the best we can in terms of embracing industry best practices to have a good guess on that. But I’m going to find out, and as the CTO, I gotta be worried about that.
A: So, another area where I see an adoption challenge or the learning curve is the implementation of the technology itself. Do you see that as a challenge for an IT guy? Where in I need to bring in an infrastructure, which I’ve never thought about before to be implemented in a fire department.
Dr. J: Well, this isn’t the nineties anymore, right? We kind of live in the end user software era. It’s again coming from behavioral science where I just like expect it has to be easy.
You can’t go to an IT person at a fire agency and be like, you got to do this and that. It’s gotta be easy, turn on quickly and be intuitive. Just like using an app on a smartphone.
And that’s where I think a lot of our user test helps.
A: That’s great. Thanks John. This was an interesting conversation. We’ll definitely keep an eye on it.
Dr. J: Thank you.
So, this is a classic example of passion and technology coming together to solve a genuine problem. It has a capability of certainly opening one’s mind to new possibilities, and hope whether you are a technologist or an entrepreneur or may be just an individual, this might have sparked an idea within you or taught you as well.
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