The Immersive Future of Emergency Services

  • techUK techUK
    Thursday09Jul 2020
    Event round-ups

    On Thursday 2 July, techUK’s Tech & Innovation and Justice & Emergency Services teams partnered to deliver a webinar on the opportunities for immersive technology to...

On Thursday 2 July, techUK’s Tech & Innovation and Justice & Emergency Services teams partnered up to deliver a webinar focusing on opportunities for immersive technology in supporting staff across our emergency services.

We were delighted to welcome 60 attendees to this webinar who were given the opportunity to hear presentations and examples of ARVR from: 

Natalie Cassidy, Accenture 

Paul Speight, Leicestershire Fire & Rescue 

Duncan McSporran, Kognitiv Spark

Kyle Hardcastle, Metropolitan Police 

Attendees were asked to consider what challenges we are seeing in the adoption of immersive technologies; how XR can support frontline staff and what have we have learnt so far.   

Our world, especially in recent months, is changing at an unprecedented rate with emergency service workers expected to operate in an increasingly digital world – whether this be the forever changing crime landscape or efficiency expectations and reliance on technology. Public safety services must adapt, embrace new technology and digitally transform. So, where do immersive technologies fit in? 

  1. Why XR? 

All four of our presenters highlighted the benefits of utilising virtual reality. It was firstly highlighted by Natalie Cassidy who explained how it allows faster time to competency and assists the visual learning in absorbing information. It also allows the learner to have access to training and information on repeat, thereby reducing the number of mistakes made and potential for harm. And finally, it helps in addressing problems around the standardising of training. With VR we have a consistent approach to training and outcome guarantee at scale.  

This was also highlighted by Paul Speight who demonstrated how XR is being used by fire and rescue services to provide interactive up to date training for officers. This was further emphasised by Kyle Hardcastle who included that virtual reality training allows realistic training without leaving the classroom with training on dangerous situations in a controlled, safe environment. These key points were also supported by Duncan McSporran, who added it has a proven ability to allow frontline workers to troubleshoot like specialised experts.  Is there a one size fits all? Are we able to have one consistent approach to training and, does VR enable this? In total, it is proven to increase operational efficiency.  

  1. Why now? 

Natalie Cassidy explained this quite simply through an equation. Immersion + Interaction + Imagination.  

Immersion - We have seen the cost of headsets decrease quite considerably recently and with the excellent quality and user experience, we see the use fully immersed in the technology and what it has to offer without any distractions. Interaction – You can now fully engage with the training, with capabilities allowing you to pick up objects in the experience, interaction also being significantly enhanced by combining VR with artificial intelligence allowing you as the user to speak and be understood when in the experience itself. Imagination – there really are no limitations other than our understanding on how to use VR, with the experience able to be as realistic as you want. With all its possibilities, there is a place for this technology in supporting our frontline staff now, more than ever. This was clearly indicated via both Kyle Harcastle and Paul Speights visuals showcasing the power of virtual reality for tailored, in-detail use cases.  

  1. Is XR here to replace the human? 

Across all four presentations, it was clear that XR does not exist to replace the human. Instead, it is here to assist the human in decision making, enhance training capabilities and accelerate learning outcomes. Duncan McSporran touched on accelerating your decision action cycle. “XR to improve your decision-making ,not replace it”. There is an immediate application for the ability to take somebody, who is on scene, and help walk them through what the next best step to take is. This can be achieved by using mixed reality to put them in a room with an expert. We are focusing on the human in the loop and we are making that individual and their team be as effective as they can with technology. What we are not doing is advocating that technology replace the human. 

4. Overcoming the challenges 

As mentioned by Paul Speight, it’s about changing the mindset of ‘that’s the way we have always done it’. Advocates of immersive technologies can see the key benefits of supplementing high-risk and high-cost training scenarios with ARVR, but adoption is not possible without the crucial buy-in of key stakeholders. Those within the emergency services will need to expect difficult conversations around cost and disrupting workflows in order to adopt immersive technologies.  

There are also infrastructural challenges unique to emergency services that can make adoption difficult, such as lack of connectivity to frontline workers for realtime communication. However, as Duncan McSporran emphasises with their services at Kognitiv Spark, these challenges are actively being addressed and are opening new opportunities for immersive technologies for emergency services. 

Finally, adoption across emergency services remains piecemeal and relies on individual advocates to further adoption. A national cohesive voice to ensure each force has equal access to the benefits of immersive technologies will be crucial as we move forward. 

Thank you to all those that attended.  

Below you will find the questions and answers from our panel that we did not have a chance to get through at the event. You will also find an opportunity through DSTL. Thank you again for joining us! Any questions please reach out to Georgie or Laura.  


Have you come across any reluctance to embed AR into support training? 

Natalie Cassidy: The biggest struggle relates to the considerations mentioned in my presentation: 1. Little experience trying different VR experiences – without trying first hand it is harder to see its potential for multiple learning applications 2. Developing meaningful use cases. It is important to know what problem we are solving for/ learning outcome we are trying to achieve and then think about the best learning tool and VR technology. 3.Striking the balance between interactivity and scalability – some of the reluctance stems from past experiences with VR requiring a 3 wall set up and the need for lots of equipment. Now with headsets like the OculusQuest VR training can be truly mobile at a high quality and much lower cost. 4. Co-creation with users – involving the learners in the process of creating the VR experience is really important for adoption. 

Duncan McSporran: Yes, there are challenges, especially where adoption of XR is not a capability being driven by senior leaders in an organisation with a well expressed vision.  However, we have seen the most impactful paths to adoption is where there is clear thought leadership from senior executives with the responsibility for Operations and Capability development. 

Kyle Hardcastle: To date we have not tried to introduce AR into our training as we found that VR is better suited to our needs and objectives. We have previously experimented with MR headsets, however, at this time we found them to not be as suitable as VR for police training. Specifically, within MR headsets their tends to be only a small screen that overlays the digital content onto the real world. The restrictive nature of this screen, means that the wearer has a limited field of vision - where the digital content is concerned.  For instance, if you were to look at a digital person using a MR headset you would only see what is in your direct vision i.e. head and shoulders – the rest of the body is invisible. We found this to cause some issues with our particular training requirements. As an example, when speaking to a potential suspect, police officers need to be able to observe the whole person’s body language so that they can assess for any indicators of a threat e.g. making a fist, putting hands in pockets, direction of feet etc. Big advancements are being made in MR headsets, and I don’t think it will be too long until there is a product that will provide an unrestricted view of digital content.  

What is the biggest struggle to get buy-in for a project?  

KH: From my experience, the biggest hurdle to the adoption of VR within training has been the question: Is it just a toy or does it provide real benefit for training? As a public funded service, we need to ensure that the benefits of using any new technology outweigh the cost. Thankfully, lots of research has been conducted in this area, and prior to starting our project I was able to provide a review of empirical evidence of the potential benefits. We started our project small with an initial pilot, and as we started to record the benefits of VR for ourselves, we were able to justify further investment in the technology.  This cost-benefit analysis is a continual process on my team. Understanding the limitations of VR and only using the technology where it is suitable, is an important part of longer-term buy-in. 

Emergency response workers are highly skilled, but not necessarily in immersive technologies. How can we overcome the potential of a skills gap? 

NC: Firstly, when considering VR for training purposes, the lack of prior skills in immersive technologies is not a concern if : 

a. there is effective onboarding – at Accenture we ensure clients have what they need for both the ‘headset on’ and ‘headset off’ learning experience, whereby the ‘headset off’ includes both training on how to use the immersive technology  

and b. the experience is well-designed and by applying ‘user design principles’.  

This is part of the power of VR – it is an effective learning tool for all.  

It is important to stress, however, that the adoption and application of VR for training shouldn’t be done in isolation but as part of the wider L&D programme so that it is clear how it fits into the larger learning experience. This is why we bring together both our L&D specialists and VR expertise to any VR training project, along with experience working with public safety clients. 

KH: As with any new technology, there is always the creation of a skills gap.  I can remember when PowerPoint came out and many people viewed that as a specialism. To date, within Protective Security Operations (Met Police), our adoption of VR based training has focused on building an internal capability to produce a full range of VR training experiences.  The primary focus of taking this internal approach, was to see whether the skills gap can be overcome. We have taken a small team of police officers, with no experience of VR development, and successfully trained them in VR production. A professional VR developer will always be much quicker and we often face development challenges, however, we have found we can still produce training package that meet our needs.  From my personal experience, emergency service workers have a very strong can-do attitude. They always embrace challenges and are used to adapting quickly to new technologies. 

DM: Talk to companies in MR/XR whose focus is meeting the needs of the Human in the Loop, not on how fantastic their software is.  Any User Interface (UI/UX) should be simple, and intuitive and not add cognitive burden to the end-user, especially where it may be providing re-generative training very close to the operational task in location and time.  This needs a focused approach by your systems provider and an application to the importance of how XR tech impacts the team member learning or conducting a task. 

How can VR training take into account and react to body language? 

KH: As previously mentioned, body language is an important factor in some police training scenarios. Within VR training there is an ability to create computer generated avatars that will respond to the students actions or commands, so to a certain extent, replication of body language is possible.  This is suitable for some training scenarios, however, due to current limitation of the technology – avatar movements can sometimes be delayed or seem unnatural. Nevertheless, I have recently seen some exciting work being done in this area and it is only going to get better.  From our current experience, we have found that when body language is central to the training, it is best to have an instructor in the VR training playing the role of the avatar. This way the body language will be natural, realistic, and dynamic.  

What connectivity requirements will VR need for remote support. (ie. When a frontline worker is in the field and an expert is in the office) 

DM: For Mixed Reality, the world leading capabilities for bandwidth is 256Kb of connectivity for linking two collaborating team members to address a task in the field, pioneered by Kognitiv Spark.  That is the equivalent of a 3G phone call, which is the equivalent found in many locations where First Responders or other Emergency Response teams are required to operate.  Situations of no connectivity can also be addressed, through the use of on-premise localised Mixed Reality bubbles. This meets not only the needs of those who are “disconnected by necessity” or beyond available connectivity, but also those who for security reasons are “disconnected by choice” and can be enabled now with systems that are also off-grid with only 12V supply.  With this capability the connectivity challenges for almost any situation can be addressed and this “hybrid” connectivity concept will become more and more prevalent, as technical solutions such as MR need to work across the whole spectrum of connection options from 5G through on-prem to Data over satellite. 

KH: At the moment, our use of VR technology has been primarily focussed on training and scenario simulation.  As yet, my team has not attempted to use VR to assist personnel live in the field.  
The potential benefits the technology can offer in this area are very exciting, and we are always horizon scanning for any opportunities to use technology to better protect and improve the service we provide to our communities.   


As part of a new drive to maximise the impact of immersive technology in defence training and education the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) are looking for innovative companies that can provide the Ministry of Defence with novel solutions in the immersive reality space.  

Is this you?  

Do you want to bring your technology to a whole new audience and at ther same time support the UK's armed forces in maintaining their competitive edge? If so, get ready to Pitch, MIITTE are ready to listen. Game-changers only, thanks.  

Dstl know innovation doesn't wait, so a virtual pitch panel has been arranged for 23 July 2020 with more to follow where you can tell MIITTE about what your company is doing and why it matters.  

Get involved by clicking below to visit our invitation space on the MIITTE mini-site. If, for whatever reason, you are not in a position to pitch now, use the mini-site to register your company's interest in joining our new Community of Practice where you can be kept updated on what is happening in defence XR. 

  • Georgina Henley

    Georgina Henley

    Programme Manager | Justice and Emergency Services
  • Laura Foster

    Laura Foster

    Programme Manager | Technology and Innovation

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