New High-Tech Glasses Let Firefighters See Through Smoke To Save Lives

Taking out blind spots.

There can't be enough said of the bravery of firefighters, who boldly run into burning buildings in order to save lives. Once inside, thick smoke makes it hard to see, particularly if someone is unresponsive on the ground. A new piece of augmented reality technology could help firefighters see through the smoke, allowing them to identify people and make their way through the building faster and easier than ever.

Augmented reality is essentially what it sounds like — the user sees the real environment in an altered way. In this case, a thermal camera is attached to the firefighter's helmet and the display is projected through a pair of glasses. This allows the firefighters to see a real-time version of the surroundings based on heat signature along with a regular view.

Many firefighters do already have access to handheld thermal imaging units, but this new system has the distinct advantage of leaving their hands free to carry equipment or assist someone out of harm's way.

Snapshot of augmented reality display, allowing firefighters to see objects through smoke, based on the heat signature.
Snapshot of augmented reality display, allowing firefighters to see objects through smoke, based on the heat signature. EPFL

The technology was developed by a team of researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. While typical thermal imaging is color coordinated with red indicating hotter things and blue for cooler things, it was difficult to make this work on the transparent display.

The researchers collaborated with a team of firefighters to test out the unit under real-world conditions, giving them invaluable feedback of how the tech worked or didn't. Many of the testers reportedthat there was a bit of a learning curve with correctly interpreting what they were seeing, but it was fairly easy to overcome.

Of course, the glasses aren't always going to be practical, as firefighters frequently have to wear breathing masks to prevent smoke inhalation. Now that the system is functional, the team can work on integrating the augmented reality display into a breathing mask.

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(H/T: PopSci)