It could be a city anywhere in the world: A demonstration is turning ugly. Police are moving among the protestors to maintain calm, but a violent escalation is a real possibility.
It’s a fully immersive simulation. The characters that populate the model have been given behavioral characteristics taken from real life to enable their creator, Associate Professor of Geography, Paul Torrens, to predict how a typical crowd of protestors might behave in a typical urban environment.
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It’s one example of a broader goal to build software systems that create realistic environments for urban planners.
Professor Torrens explains:
“So to build computational worlds where we can play with ideas, plans, hypotheses, policies in ways that we couldn’t normally do on the ground because they’re just too difficult, because they’re too dangerous or because the phenomena we want to play around with don’t yet exist.”
In other scenarios, Torrens creates situations where a crowd is running from a perceived threat. Each individual has been instructed to follow the path taken by their six nearest neighbors. They’ve been programmed to avoid collisions and follow the crowd in a way that presumes its leaders know what they’re doing.
This kind of immersive animation is increasingly being seen in computer games, but Torrens believes his imagined scenarios have real-world application:
“They can have direct bearing on evacuation strategies and evaluating, whether a particular infrastructural environment or architecture of a building lends itself to efficient evacuation or not.”
As a proof of concept, Torrens’ work also realistically simulates what happens when rigid objects collide with soft ones, allowing planners to foresee the potential impact of future designs on the people who use them.
Torrens’ imagined humans are as lifelike as he can make them, inhabiting worlds that can be changed and refined to suit real-world situations where people and architecture are likely to meet.