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FirstNet Authority, NIST Launch Immersive Virtual Experience Center for Public Safety

Two men, one wearing virtual reality goggles, standing in a virtual reality testing space

Dereck Orr, director of NIST Public Safety Communications Research, talks to FirstNet board chair Stephen Benjamin while he tries out a virtual reality program for firefighters in the new immersive testing facility.

Credit: NIST

BOULDER, Colo. — The U.S. Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced today the launch of the Public Safety Immersive Test Center in Boulder, Colorado, to spur the development and deployment of technologies critical to effective public safety response.  

Through this partnership, NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division and the FirstNet Authority plan to enable research and development, education, and training, by offering the facility at no cost to public safety agencies and organizations that support public safety response efforts, including private sector and academic institutions. The facility is designed to help answer key research questions around the future of user interfaces and location services for public safety training and operations.

“When seconds count, situational awareness can be a matter of life or death for first responders,” said Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet Authority chief network and technology officer. “We are proud to partner with NIST on this state-of-the-art facility and provide first responders with an immersive virtual experience to help them prepare for those critical moments. The FirstNet Authority is dedicated to advancing technologies and innovative ways to ensure first responders have the tools they need for their lifesaving mission.”

“This facility enables us to take our research to the next level by allowing natural interactions,” said Scott Ledgerwood, who leads NIST PSCR’s work on user experience and user interfaces. “Traditional virtual reality simulations required controllers for interaction, which didn’t translate well to real-life scenarios. In this new facility, users can walk or crawl throughout the space, physically touch walls and furniture, and pick up props like fire nozzles or dummies. This approach will improve measures and build confidence in the test results for translations of technologies to the real world.” 

Located in the FirstNet Authority building, the center is approximately 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) of customized space equipped with a motion capture system, 42 high speed optical tracking cameras, a variety of augmented and virtual reality headsets, and gear and fixtures that add a tactile component to simulations. This equipment helps responders run through various scenarios, such as simulations of search and rescue activities or coordinated complex terrorist attacks. The FirstNet Authority and NIST plan to update the space regularly with enhancements such as haptics and metrology, 5G, edge computing, WebXR capabilities (which allow virtual and augmented realities to be combined) and other technological advances for public safety operations.

Technology developers will have the opportunity to test their equipment in realistic scenarios, and first responders will also be able to participate.

“The center is giving us a glimpse into the future,” said Sterling Folden, deputy chief of Mountain View Fire and Rescue in Longmont, Colorado. “It’s very promising to see the technology that is being invested in to augment whatever we do and the tools we’ll have in the future to make our citizens safer. All these forms of technology from the facility have the opportunity to be implemented in the field. Some lend themselves better to training like VR, but augmented reality can be implemented in the field sooner rather than later and make a big difference for people.” 

FirstNet Authority media contact: Candice Appiakorang, Candice.Appiakorang [at] (Candice[dot]Appiakorang[at]firstnet[dot]gov), 202-510-7505

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About NIST

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. The Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division within NIST’s Communications Technology Laboratory is the primary federal laboratory conducting research, development, testing and evaluation for public safety communications technologies. It addresses the research and development necessary for critical features identified by public safety entities beyond the current generation of broadband technology. 

About the First Responder Network Authority

The First Responder Network Authority is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chartered in 2012, its mission is to ensure the building, deployment and operation of the nationwide broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities. Learn more at and follow the FirstNet Authority (@FirstNetGov) on Facebook and Twitter for updates. 

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