2014-02-18

Co.Labs

This Firefighter Built His Own Google Glass App And It's Saving Lives

Plus other cottage industry Glass apps that are saving lives or improving them.



Some of the veterans in the Rocky Mount, North Carolina fire department think he’s crazy, but that’s not stopping Patrick Jackson. The self-taught computer programmer and full-time firefighter isn’t fazed by sideways looks he gets walking around the station wearing Google Glass. That’s because he knows it could save lives.

Jackson, a 34-year-old member of the Google Glass Explorer program, has developed an app that displays incoming emergency dispatches, shows maps of where incidents are, nearest fire hydrants, and even building plans. By using data to shorten response times, he's hoping to turn his peers’ disbelief into respect.

Patrick Jackson

The firefighter’s savvy creation is part of a growing subculture of social good apps that could turn Glass into a tool to save lives. In Michigan, a young IT professional is using Glass as an alert system to help sleepy drivers stay awake and direct them to nearest rest areas via GPS navigation. Meanwhile, doctors at the University of Alabama, UC San Francisco, and UC Irvine are even using Glass to help perform surgery.

Glass's greatest potential lies not in fashion statements, or even in a new way to share social updates and capture media, but in helping professionals work more efficiently and safely. It can even improve the quality of life for the disabled and help children learn.

Glass For Emergency Services

Jackson, who learned to code at the early age of 7, studied engineering in college before transferring to environmental policy management. After a 10-year hiatus from computers, Jackson was inspired to develop Android apps, creating the app Firefighter Log for smartphones around 2010. Integrating the department’s dispatch system, facilitating instant notifications, closest hydrants, and maps, the department has used the tool for the past two years, with firefighters downloading it across the country.

Last year Jackson heard about Glass, and raised enough funds via Indiegogo to get a pair of the $1,500 frames.

Jackson's Glass app allows for all incoming emergency dispatch calls to come directly to his device. He then uses Glass to lead his unit to the location and find the nearest fire hydrant while en route, saving precious time.

When someone calls 911 and asks questions from dispatch, that info drops into a database which the app picks up. Jackson then gets a notification, often while the dispatcher is still gathering info. He says this gives as much as 30 seconds to a minute of lead time to act, "which could be big in a fire or a heart attack."

So far the department is only testing this out—it hasn't been used at the scene of an emergency. But Jackson does use the app at the station and while traveling, so far using Glass on about 100 calls over the past several months.

"It gives me a real quick way to get notifications, as well as a map of where it is, along with notes that the dispatcher can type in," he explains, wearing it on the way to incidents. "I won’t wear it on EMS calls because people don’t know what it is, and its an invasion of privacy having a camera there."

Now Jackson is developing Glassware to allow him to look up location information, and structural floor plans by saying the address or just looking at the building. In a new spin on the hydraulic rescue tool, jaws of life, Jackson is integrating car diagrams in case of emergencies to cut through cars, allowing firefighters to easily find the best access points.

Jackson says he thinks Glass will soon have a widespread role in the field with EMS. One use could be recording video after leaving the station and recording upon arriving at a scene, useful for arson investigators and for training new recruits.

"I see Glass as being very helpful there in a hands-free way to get information." Having Glass hasn’t saved a life, yet, but it has saved property, he says. "Given the right situation it could."

Introducing the tool to the other 150 firefighters at the station wasn’t easy for the seven-year veteran and ladder truck driver. But he’s starting to win them over.

"Most of the guys think it’s a good idea, but I get picked on for how it looks," he admits. "First day I came back with them there was actually a guy who made a big pair of safety glasses, taped cardboard on it and wrote ‘Google’ on the side."

But since a YouTube video was released a few weeks ago, showing the app in action, things are changing. The video has amassed almost half a million views, causing "a lot of response from other firefighter and departments."

Jackson is also working on a CPR assist app for Glass, measuring the speed of compressions, and whether you need to speed up or slow down based on sensors that detect head movement. He’s teaming with a Michigan startup called team(evermed) during his days off from the department, where he spends 10 days per month working grueling 24-hour shifts.

The fire engineer is also working on an electronic medical application to display patients’ records on Glass.

"I’m looking at making this a company and making it available to other fire departments, and making it affordable and scalable," he says. Because of liability issues, "it may be a training aid or used in health care providing seeing or first responders."

With a few minor tweaks, Jackson thinks these tools can be extended to police and other emergency medical services.

"It wouldn't be that much of a jump," he claims, and he’s exploring those options right now. The firefighter turned entrepreneur plans to either bootstrap his business and work at the fire department while getting customers, or seek investments and leave to pursue the project full time.

He envisions Glass apps like his as a future standard service tool for firefighters. In fact, he has already been making the rounds at industry conferences like SMART firefighting, a CES-like event for mobile devices and emerging fire service tech, and there’s interest from other departments.

"I think its going to happen," he says. "It’ll be a few years. The hurdle right now is the price."

Glass Behind The Wheel

Only two years removed from college, Jake Steinerman spends a lot of time driving up and down the state of Michigan, putting 24,000 miles on his 2013 sky blue Mazda in search of prime snowboarding runs. Trips have included some long nights driving, and more than once, an exhausted Steinerman has fallen asleep behind the wheel.

About eight months ago Steinerman says he passed out for five to 10 seconds while coming back from Detroit around 3 a.m. Luckily the New York native woke up and got off the road before tragedy struck. The experience shook and inspired him to create a tool to help overextended and exhausted drivers. It’s called DriveSafe, an app that prevents you from falling asleep while behind the wheel. Using Glass’ sensors, DriveSafe can detect when you doze off via built-in infrared sensors.

"It’s like having an invisible driving assistant, something that’s always there and always watching, like a friend sitting next to you," Steinerman explains. "The app looks at motion of your eye and the tilt sensor. When you reach a certain threshold, you hear audible feeds."

When that happens, DriveSafe triggers an alert to wake you up and a text notification display saying you’re going to sleep. When you tap on Glass, the app then uses GPS navigation to direct you to the nearest rest area so you can continue driving safely later.

"It’s not going to shock you," Steinerman clarifies. "It’s going to ease you so you don’t overcompensate and go into an accident for that reason."

The 23-year-old IT professional wants to turn this labor of love into a full-fledged business. "Right now our starting point is sleep detection and drowsiness alerts. We think we can tackle issues like distracted driving, using a compass to tell if you’re focused on the road, halfway turning your head around, or if you’re looking at, and replying to text messages and emails."

Steinerman thinks his hands-free device is far less distracting than smartphones or dashboard GPS. Real-world applications go far beyond late night drivers, including "industries like delivery, truck drivers, and machine workers."

The 2012 University of Michigan grad previously spent seven years volunteering with autistic children in Long Island, New York. That experience inspired his first startup, a now defunct speech help company called MoBlue Tech. Even though he wasn’t able to scale that business, Steinerman considers that time instrumental in his development.

"It’s great to see folks be part of the Glass community and be passionate, not just create an Angry Birds for Glass, but an app that really will change lives," Steinerman says. "It really allows people to do things they weren’t able to do before. That’s really where tech is needed. The first time I think in a long time we see tech that’s really different and built for science."

Other Innovations To Watch For

Right now apps are being developed to help the deaf, the blind, and by surgeons in the U.S. and overseas—things like Navatar, a Glass app built by the University of Nevada at Reno for the blind that gives audible directions in indoor spaces.

Firefighters and doctors are already benefiting, but it’s likely not long until other professionals, and even blue collar workers like truck drivers, plumbers, electricians, manufacturers, and factory workers, tap into its benefits.

None of this would be possible without Thad Starner, the Georgia Institute of Technology professor who coined the term "augmented reality" back in 1990, and helped developed Google develop Glass.

Starner, who is involved with a slew of Glass-centric innovations, has been sporting wearable tech for over 20 years. He says this wave of developers is just the beginning. And that’s in large part thanks to those explorers playing with early forms of the device, and unlocking possibilities which may influence future Glass’ functionality, "exactly what we’re seeing from firefighters and doctors. We couldn’t do that with a mass-market device," Starner says.

Right now students at Georgia Tech are working on an app similar to the technology that the Marvel comic book superhero Mr. Fantastic used to decipher unknown languages back in the 1960s and '70s. Except this is science fact—not fiction. And it’s not a gun that zaps you. It’s called Translator on Glass, and it could have tremendous value in places like hospitals and emergency situations.

"It's very hard at 2 a.m. to find yourself an interpreter," says Starner, who knows firsthand the value of that tool, raised by a mother who worked late nights in the emergency room of a New York hospital.

Here’s how Translator on Glass works: A doctor or nurse would hand a patient a phone, they would select their native language, tap on the device when they wish to speak, and talk into the phone’s microphone in their native language, which then "ships it off to Google translate, and then sends it to the doctor's eyepiece in English," Starner explains. "The doctor can tap his Glass and speak in English, and Spanish (for example), shows up on the cell phone. Now we have an emergency translator," which could be used beyond medical professionals, helping EMTs, firefighters, and police communicate.

Another project worth watching is Captioning on Glass, by Jim Foley, a Google scholar and computer science professor at Georgia Tech. Foley has been progressively losing his hearing, and he created a tool to specifically help other sufferers.

People with impaired hearing often have to focus on people’s lips and body language to understand conversations, which can be very hard to pick up in certain environments. Foley’s app allows users to tap Glass whenever they want to speak, which then transcribes their words into a phone and sends it as text on Glass.

"It allows you to actually pay attention to other people’s mouth and facial gestures," says Starner.

What’s Next For Google Glass?

With Google planning a mass consumer launch later this year, subsequent iterations will follow, further opening up the options for developers. Starner is quick to remind that we’re still in the very early days of large scale wearable technology, and prices will drop as Google ships and competitors hit the market.

"This is like the first mobile phone," he says, which cost around $2,000 in 1982. Back then, much like Glass, it was used by doctors and lawyers. "Then as the technology developed, it got cheaper."

Starner compares Glass to the PalmPilot in the 1990s, predicting we will soon see a "fast adaptation of the device to all sorts of things."

"Explorers have seen and hacked the thing to see the future for it."






Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Very good article, but please tell me you didn't write that over-the-top, highly inaccurate headline. "...And It's Saving Lives" Really?