In virtual emergencies, participants act a lot like people in the real world

It is difficult to study panic in emergencies. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the focus is on minimizing victims and damage — not collecting data on crowd dynamics. And re-creating these events in a laboratory raises a number of ethical questions. So how do researchers investigate crowd behavior in emergencies?

“It is impossible to study such situations experimentally.”

A team of scientists from Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Disney Research Zurich, ETH Zurich, and Rutgers University have created emergencies in virtual environments to investigate mass panic in the real world.

“In the study of crowd behavior, emergency situations are the least understood … because it is very difficult to collect data,” Mehdi Moussaïd, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, told Digital Trends. “In the past, we have analyzed a few camera recordings of places where an accident happened, but they are always difficult to evaluate.

“Furthermore, it is impossible to study such situations experimentally,” he continued. “It’s unethical and would be dangerous for our participants. Understanding precisely crowd behavior during emergencies with real-life data is a dead-end — at least with the existing methods.”

So Moussaïd and his team created a virtual environment with doors as bottlenecks, red blinking lights as stressors, and fires that block certain exits. They gave 36 participants control of their own avatar and let them observe the movement of avatars around them, but restricted them from communicating with each other.

“Everyone rushed to the exit, creating a panic-like movement.”

With the virtual fires lit, the researchers ordered the participants to evacuate the building. “Everyone rushed to the exit, creating a panic-like movement,” Moussaïd said. “Some participants did not make it out the building … but of course, in real-life, everyone was just sitting in front of a computer.”

Interestingly, participants in the virtual reality behaved a lot like people in response to real world emergencies. “We didn’t observe any significant difference between real and virtual settings,” Moussaïd said.

For example, most people in the virtual world pass on the right-hand side, just like people in real life. Participants did, however, move more slowly with their avatars then people tend to in reality — perhaps because the flight response is less intense when the danger isn’t virtual.

Moussaïd and his team hope that the data they collected will help other researchers understand crowd behavior but they are not done placing people in virtual danger. “We need to collect a large body of data about people’s behavior under a variety of emergency situations,” he said. “These will help us understand precisely what is going on. From there, we can start working on practical solutions to make stressful evacuations less dangerous.”

Urban planners can use the simulation to design their own virtual environments and test the safety of a building before it is built. By simulating the layout and analyzing a crowd’s response to an emergency, architects can locate bottlenecks and areas of hazard, potentially making buildings safer in worst-case scenarios.

Emerging Tech

Only three people have explored the deep oceans. Meet the next two

In a new mission called Five Deeps, a team of explorers will brave the inhospitable depths of the world’s oceans, observing, mapping, and collecting samples along the way. The explorers aim to traverse 40,000 nautical miles over the…
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Twilight Zone’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

Nvidia’s new A.I. creates entire virtual cities by watching dash cam videos

Nvidia's groundbreaking new machine learning technology can generate a convincing virtual city simply by showing it car dashcam videos. Here's how it works and why that's so exciting.
Emerging Tech

Here’s all the best gear and gadgetry you can snag for $100 or less

A $100 bill can get you further than you might think -- so long as you know where to look. Check out our picks for the best tech under $100, whether you're in the market for headphones or a virtual-reality headset.
Mobile

From the road to your wrist, see how Android has evolved over the past 10 years

Android started out as just a mobile operating system, but 10 years in it's pretty much everywhere. Check out our round-up of all the different Android variations that have cropped up so far, and what might be coming in the future.
Computing

Oculus VR could upgrade the Rift with a new display in 2019

Oculus could be set to release a new version of its Rift headset in 2019, but it will be more of a modest upgrade than a true sequel. The Rift S, as its purportedly called, will have a new display, and inside-out tracking.
Mobile

Google awarded patent for using eye tracking to detect expressions in VR

Google was awarded a patent that involves using eye tracking to infer facial expressions using machine learning in virtual reality. The tech could help make virtual reality a whole lot more immersive than it already is.
Gaming

Immerse yourself in a new universe with these incredible PSVR games

The PSVR has surpassed expectations and along with it comes an incredible catalog of games. There's plenty of amazing experiences to be had so we've put together a list of the best PSVR games available today.
Virtual Reality

Prototype Valve VR headset leaked: HTC Vive challenger confirmed?

Leaked images revealed that a Valve VR headset is in development, even amid Valve's partnership with HTC for the HTC Vive. Sources confirmed the device, which may be bundled with a Half-Life VR game.
Virtual Reality

Is the Vive Pro better than the original Vive? Our answer might surprise you

HTC Vive vs. Vive Pro, which comes out on top? That's the subject of our latest comparison, which looks at everything from tracking solutions, to controllers, and the brand new headset that could set a new standard for VR.
Gaming

The best HTC Vive games available today

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Computing

A Google patent shows a way to make VR even more immersive

Virtual reality can be a really immersive experience, but it does sometimes it does have boundaries. Google has addressed this problem by patenting shoes with a flexible region on the bottom.
Virtual Reality

Think virtual reality is just for games? These awesome apps will change your mind

Virtual reality isn't all about gaming. Swim with turtles, paint in 3D, and immerse yourself in some unique experiences the platform has to offer with our curated list of the best VR apps.
Gaming

Dive head first into the best experiences available now on the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift brought back virtual reality and put a modern twist to it. Grab your Touch Controllers, put on your VR headset, and jump into the fun with some of the best Oculus Rift games available now.