Research Communications

Virtual Emergency 

Video game technology, interactive images help first responders train for real-world disasters

October 28, 2011

Imagine this scenario: Across town, fire engines are screaming toward a medical center in flames, but back at the station, you are fighting the fire by accessing your web browser. As the firefighters scramble off the trucks and face a billowing wall of smoke and ash, you quickly study a three-dimensional simulation of the medical center, using your keyboard and track pad to move through the rooms as if you were playing a video game.

“There’s an auxiliary entrance to the left of the main entrance,” you tell the firefighters via a two-way communication system. The firefighters, responding to your instructions, open the door and inch down the hallway, which is pitch-black after the failure of the electrical system. “Twenty feet down, the hallway turns left,” you report. “There’s a staircase on the right.”

Illustration by Christina Ullman.

In this hypothetical situation, the firefighters were aided in their duties by the Immersive Video Intelligence Network (IVIN), an interactive digital environment. This is no static two-dimensional panorama, such as one might find on a real estate website. IVIN’s images are better than 2D, and they’re better than “photorealistic.” They are real photographs of the medical center, stitched together and laid over a game engine in order to make them interactive. The photos are merged in such a way that the user can move through the rooms of the center as if he or she were actually there.

The initial IVIN concept was created by John Bowditch, who is the director of Ohio University’s GRID (Game Research and Immersive Design) Lab and an instructor in the School of Media Arts and Studies. Bowditch initially conceived of the extraction of 3D models from flat photographs as a way to “bring to life” photographs of historical events such as the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

But after receiving two grants from the Columbus Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), IVIN went in a drastically different direction. Columbus UASI, through the Franklin County Office of Homeland Security & Criminal Justice Programs, saw the technology as a tool to assist police officers, firefighters, and soldiers dealing with terrorist attacks, hostage situations, active shooters, natural disasters, fires, or accidents at strategic Columbus-area buildings.

Currently, when first responders arrive at the scene of a disaster, they often use an online information portal called ACAMS (Automated Critical Asset Management System), says William McKendry, a critical infrastructure and key resources consultant for the Franklin County Office of Homeland Security & Criminal Justice Programs. ACAMS, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, provides two-dimensional floor plans of buildings, as well as critically important information such as site security measures. McKendry says that IVIN will enhance ACAMS by providing 3D models of buildings.

John Bowditch
John Bowditch. Photo Credit: Robb DeCamp.

“It’s a great aid to first responders,” he says. “Basically, they have eyes where they don’t have any visuals. They can go inside the building without having to go inside the building.”

Threats to buildings aren’t just limited to terrorist attacks. McKendry lists various scenarios in which IVIN could be a lifesaver. “A natural disaster or hostage situation is much more likely than terrorist activity,” he says. “IVIN could be used for tornadoes or floods, for example, or a building collapse from an earthquake.”

McKendry uses the spring 2011 outbreak of deadly tornadoes across the South and Midwest as an example of a situation in which IVIN would prove useful. “The first responders faced buildings that were partially destroyed,” he says. “IVIN would have helped them determine how best to get to those destroyed parts through the parts that were still standing.”

In addition, Bowditch says, public safety divisions such as the Columbus police and fire departments will soon use IVIN to train first responders. Instead of expensive field work, first responders can learn how to handle emergencies in a virtual space that is identical to the real space in which they would be working.

McKendry is enthusiastic about the idea. “I’m reaching out right now to the organizations that have IVIN in so we can get their training people together,” he says. “From a training standpoint, it will be used immediately.”

From spring 2008 to summer 2011, Bowditch says, his team applied the IVIN process to 20 different Columbus buildings, “areas that could be densely populated and/or places that have political or economic or energy significance.” For security reasons, the buildings can’t be named, but McKendry says that they include public safety facilities, public utilities, commercial high-rise buildings, commercial manufacturing facilities, and a large indoor arena.

Using a virtual world to make the real world safer requires an enormous amount of time and effort. Bowditch explains that the IVIN process consists of two steps: shooting the images of the rooms in a building and then processing the images to create an immersive virtual environment. “It’s a very intensive process,” he says. “We had 30 shoots to do in 18 months, and we also had to process all that data.”

For the demanding project, the GRID Lab assembled teams of Ohio University students—mainly from the School of Media Arts and Studies and the School of Visual Communication—to travel to Columbus. “One thing I was really excited about with this project was the number of students we were able to employ,” says Beth Novak, IVIN's resident interface designer and an associate professor of media arts and studies. “It’s really helped our students in a way that you can’t necessarily teach in a classroom. It’s an important project with real deadlines, the kind of experience that you don’t have until your first job.”

Once in Columbus, the students used cameras with fisheye lenses, mounted on tripods, to take 360-degree photographs of every square inch of every room in a building. John Gibson, the GRID Lab’s technical artist and leader of the 3D modeling team, worked on the site shoots when he was a student. Gibson, who is also the head of the Columbus IVIN project’s post-production team, says that the early days of the project were extremely challenging. “No one had ever done this before,” he says. “There was no instruction manual. We were just trying to figure out the best processes and practices.”

The team’s hard work has paid off. There is a patent pending on the technology, and IVIN has grown so rapidly that a company called IVIN3D, headed by CEO Jean Marie Cackowski-Campbell, was created to privatize the project. “All projects will be done through the company,” Bowditch says, “which will mean lasting job creation for central Ohio.”

The IVIN team continues to propose new applications for the technology. Bowditch eventually wants to make IVIN capable of providing information such as which doors of a building are locked at what times, the locations of flammable chemicals, and the locations of emergency shutoffs for utilities. The team has discussed how IVIN could help coordinate building evacuation plans and provide online tours of museums, amusement parks, and other facilities.

Perhaps by then, he says, the technology also could simulate what’s happening in a building in real time. “We’re just at the tip of what we can do with this technology,” he says.

For more information about the IVIN project, visit

By Karen Sottosanti

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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