The cognitive scientists in the Virtual Environment Navigation lab at
Led by Professor
"When you walk across campus during class change you are, consciously or not, coordinating your movements with the people around you," Warren said. "In some situations coherent 'swarms' form, somewhat like a flock of birds or a school of fish. We want to understand that process."
A well-tuned computer model of such swarming behavior could have many specific applications in human life.
"There are applications to urban planning, architectural design, and evacuation planning," Warren said. "Crowds seem to behave in predictable ways, but the environment is not always built to accommodate people's behavior."
It could also lead to technology to help visually impaired pedestrians. The research is gaining attention. Warren flew to
Of swarms real and virtual
His talk was not just about how what we see guides how we walk. It also delved into the kind of technology people normally discuss at video game conferences.
One needs a crowd to study crowds, so Warren and his students recruited volunteers for one called the Sayles Swarm and recorded them using motion capture technology (
"We're trying to use
To make this possible his team rigged up the 168-square meter VENLab to make their off-the-shelf Oculus Rift VR headsets wireless. The room also has video cameras and a grid of beacons on the ceiling that emit ultrasound pulses denoting their location. The headset "listens" for those beacons with microphones and combines them with signals from accelerometers, much like the ones in a smartphone, to determine where the subject is and what they are looking at in the virtual world.
Going wireless has vastly improved the research, because it allows subjects to move unencumbered.
"That's the breakthrough: the freedom of movement," Warren said. "Before we had a bunch of heavy cables running to the head-mounted display. At one point the subject had to wear a big control box in a backpack. But now we've managed to make it quite light and mobile so people can move about freely."
In the future they hope to integrate many people into the same virtual environment, even if they aren't in the same real room. That will require making headsets that can track their location without any surrounding hardware. They are working with engineering Associate Professor
All along the group has been generating insights. In
"We're finding that when people walk together they tend to match the speed and direction of their neighbors. That intrinsically leads to the emergence of collective motion," Warren said. "What we're showing with the virtual crowd is that as you add more neighbors, their influence simply sums up. Now we are mapping out what we call the 'coupling field' that connects you to neighbors at different distances and different positions. This enables us to simulate the collective behavior of a large crowd."
In this high-tech way, Warren and his team are revealing the science of the swarm.
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