Columbus police go virtual

Virtual reality model shows 30 buildings that could be targets for attack

The Columbus, Ohio, police plan to field virtual technology to combat terrorism as early as 2009. The department is working with Athens-based Ohio University to build accurate, interactive models of 30 high-profile city buildings and sites that are likely targets for terrorist attacks or other violent incidents.

The two-year project, awarded to the university's Telecommunications and Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, falls under a Columbus police department unit called the Urban Area Security Initiative Terrorism Early Warning Group. The university is receiving a $702,000 federal grant to develop the technology.

The Columbus police will use the virtual technology to improve its emergency response operations' effectiveness and reliability, according to project designers. First responders will gain access to the data and models available both in the field, via wireless laptop PC, and at the precinct, calling up information tailored to a specific area.

The virtual models will utilize new technologies, including 360-degree photography that provides views of the sites from every angle and immersive video, which allows real-world scenes to be recorded from every direction at the same time. In addition, software in the system provides 3-D user control of the viewing direction and variable playback speed. The system also incorporates the Global Positioning System and inertial guidance systems (IGS) for tracking and positioning information.

The virtual reality system uses IGS to track the positions of key entities when GPS satellite links aren't available. The advantage of an IGS is that it requires no external references in order to determine its position, orientation or velocity once it has been initialized, according to the projects' planners.

The systems' technology architecture calls for the virtual models to contain embedded information about each building's history, owner, utility providers and contacts.

The Columbus police department said it plans to launch the system in spring 2008 and move it to full operating status by fall 2009. The virtual-reality pilot falls under the department's overall group of plans and preparations for homeland security response and recovery, according to Lt. Fred Bowditch, the Terrorism Early Warning Group commander.

The GRID team will visit, photograph and video 15 sites in the first year and 15 in the second year of the project, said Erin Roberts, external communications coordinator at Scripps College of Communications, Ohio University.

The university will also combine additional metadata, such as GPS data and measurements, with the images, as well as add video game technology to the images. The gaming technology will allow the police to move around the images as if they were avatars ' fully mobile virtual people ' in a video game. Project designers expect the avatar feature will improve the interactive nature of the virtual-reality system.

In addition to crafting the software the virtual-reality system will require, Ohio University plans to provide a backup server to the police department and will train officers and staff on how to use and maintain the system, Roberts said.

Counterterrorism agencies across the country increasingly are developing virtual models to provide improved preparation, response and recovery to homeland security threats, as well as catastrophic natural disasters, specialists in the field said. Cheaper processing power and advances in virtual-technology software now allow the systems to run on PCs and put them within the reach of a broad range of state, local and federal agencies, the specialists said.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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