Jan. 2 - 2011 was notable for the level of civil unrest that rocked cities around the world, either because of perceived economic injustice or political protest. The unprecedented breadth of protests from New York to Cairo has resonated with one geography professor at the University of Maryland, whose work might one day help prevent protests from turning into riots. Rob Muir reports.
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 behavioural 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. It's one example of a broader goal to build software systems that create realistic environments for urban planners. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PAUL TORRENS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND SAYING: " 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 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. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PAUL TORRENS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND SAYING: "They can have direct bearing on evacuation strategies and evaluating whether a particular infrasructural 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. Rob Muir, Reuters.