As back to back mass shootings in the U.S. prompt more difficult debates on gun laws, researchers at University of Southern California (USC) are working on a different, perhaps less controversial method of keeping people inside buildings safe and deterring people who want to commit acts of mass violence.
Design and Behavior
Engineers and computer scientists are exploring building design and technology seeking ways to protect people. Recent innovations offer many possibilities, from placement of exits to the number of hiding spots and even walls that move. But before designs can be put in place, researchers must first observe the behavior of the building's occupants.
How do the people inside a building respond when an active shooter is present? Will their behavior change if the building is designed in a different way? Virtual reality (VR) is the first step to answering these questions and helping engineers create a safer building according to USC assistant professor Gale Lucas, who conducts research in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Computer Science Department and Institute for Creative Technologies.
“We're interested in looking at how different building attributes affect responses to incidents of extreme violence, and that's something that we can't manipulate easily in the real world, but in virtual reality all of that is possible and it's possible safe and ethically,” Lucas said.
Building design features that could make a building safer in mass shooting incidents include the number of exits and hiding places in a building or even whether glass windows are clear or frosted. Many of the features are based on recommendations from government agencies and security experts.
“There are so many recommendations out there and there's so much money being invested on these recommendations but they're not well tested in the real world in terms of how they play out,” said Burcin Becerik-Gerber, professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC. She and Lucas co-direct USC's CENTIENTS, the Center for Intelligent Environments.
Virtual reality can safely and cheaply simulate real world situations. Virtual building designs can also easily be changed and adapted for different types of buildings said Becerik-Gerber.
Later this year, various building designs in a school and an office setting will be tested out in the virtual world with more than 200 real world teachers and office workers on treadmills, using VR so they can run away from the shooter in the virtual world.
Building features however may not be one size fits all. For example, frosted glass on doors to a room that may keep people safe in an active shooter situation may not be ideal during a normal school day when people want to be able to look inside a classroom to deter child predators.
“I think the answer is having more dynamic kinetic elements instead of thinking building elements as static. We're talking about maybe frosted versus normal glass, but they can have the intelligence when the building senses the threat,” said Becerik-Gerber.
Intelligent Threat-Sensing Building
Instead of an either or, why not have a glass window that can do both said Becerik-Gerber. Artificial intelligence and sensors in a building can allow it to frost a clear window when it senses a threat.
“It could be the case where there are sensors when they pick up the noise levels. If there is a shooting, obviously there it will come with some increased noise levels and shouting and other clues. So the building can have for example, dynamic walls that lock up maybe the bad actors in the building,” suggested Becerik-Gerber.
An intelligent building can also produce digital signage that points occupants to the safest exits, away from the violence.
Researchers said having intelligent buildings can be possible not too far in the future. The technological elements needed to make a building sense danger and respond to keep its occupants safe are available. There just has to be the willingness to incorporate the elements and implement them into buildings.
Through their three-year project on building design and virtual reality, funded by the National Science Foundation, the researchers at USC aim to better understand how different design features influence people’s behavior. Once they have the data, they can present their findings to security experts and other stakeholders so one day, in the near future, better buildings with intelligence incorporated into the building's DNA can be created to keep it's occupants safe from acts of mass violence.