Mobile messaging on a jacket for first responders

A fire is raging in a large building and the incident commander is sending a message to all first responders at the scene. But they do not need a mobile phone – they simply check their jacket sleeves and read the message there.

Aug 6, 2014
By Paul Jacques

A fire is raging in a large building and the incident commander is sending a message to all first responders at the scene. But they do not need a mobile phone – they simply check their jacket sleeves and read the message there.

With communication essential during the chaos generated by a crisis situation, a standard mobile device is of only limited help in such circumstances – it is a difficult, if not impossible, task for first responders to operate small mobile handsets for reading and sending messages.

For this reason, ICT (information and communications technology) researchers at the independent Scandinavian research organisation SINTEF have been developing a ‘physical’ user interface to social media. Working with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, they developed their first ‘jacket’ a year ago. Wires and sensors were installed into the clothing, together with battery-driven circuitry controlling sensors and speakers fitted into one of the pockets.

Instead of a phone screen, a display was sewn into the jacket sleeve showing a line of rolling text. A person receiving a message feels a small vibration in his or her collar.

“Making the connection to Facebook was just one example,” explained Thomas Vilarinho at SINTEF. “The jacket is now all set to be integrated with a variety of social media platforms.”

When the Norwegian researchers started their involvement in the EU project SOCIETIES – which is looking to develop a complete, integrated community smart space (CSS) – their focus was on finding out how social media and technology could be used to facilitate collaboration between groups.

Foreign researchers taking part in the project have been looking into how to promote collaboration among students on campus or among employees in a company – the Norwegians have been researching into how the idea will work for rescue teams in crisis situations.

“Our aim has always been to create a platform on which we can integrate all social media services, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. This has now been completed,” said Mr Vilarinho.

Communication within a group

Mr Vilarinho said that with crisis operations often carried out by large teams of professionals drawn from different organisations, their starting point was that these teams must maintain high levels of coordination and communication among themselves while an operation was in progress.

“In conversations with the Red Cross, police and fire service personnel in Ireland, they have always emphasised how vital it is to keep information within the team in question. They are very careful about what information they distribute outside the team,” he said.

For this reason, the researchers have now developed a so-called ‘peer-to-peer’ system and have transferred the service from Facebook to a private, closed, network.

The new ‘Wi-Fi Direct’ system has been designed for persons in a group operating within the same area, between 20m and 50m apart, and in situations where they are not dependant on a mobile network to communicate with each other. This is a major advantage, say the researchers, because mobile networks are commonly adversely affected during natural disasters and other crisis situations.

It allows a team leader to send information from their mobile device or computer to other members of the team. However, it is not yet possible for one jacket to communicate with another. Nor can the receiver of a message respond to the sender.

The Norwegian researchers have carried out a number of assessments and talked to a variety of users both in Norway and abroad. They have demonstrated the jacket technology to focus groups consisting of four to five persons in the Irish fire service and to civil defence personnel in both Ireland and India. The jacket was also demonstrated at the EU’s ICT 2013 in Vilnius, during which visitors had a chance to try it out.

“A major and obvious wish has been to enable team members to acknowledge that a message has been understood and to send messages back to the leader,” sai

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