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Scope Series 4 RTÉ Two, Thursday, 7.00pm

Crowd Dynamics

CrowdIt’s a small world. We all know the saying, but while the globe may not actually be shrinking it may seem so thanks to population growth, cheaper transport and better communications technology.

Ireland’s population recently went over the 4 million mark for the first time since the Famine. The world’s population is currently around 6.5 billion and is expected to hit 7.5 billion by 2020.

To help manage and predict how all these people will move and interact, scientists have been using computers to simulate crowd dynamics.

Researchers at Trinity College’s Interaction, Simulation and Graphics Lab (ISG) have been working on crowd simulation for nearly five years and the fruit of their labour has applications ranging from real world disaster scenarios to urban planning and even entertainment.

Using computer models scientists can now accurately determine how fast a building or location can be evacuated, a boon for emergency services in this post 9/11 world where disaster planning is vital.

Take Croke Park, which holds 80,000 people. Modellers built a virtual stadium, assigned each a person a walking speed, pressed go and timed the crowd as it moved around obstacles to the exits. Evacuation takes just eight minutes.

SimulationIn terms of urban planning, such software allows engineers to calculate the impact new transportation systems and larger buildings will have on a city and the local environment.

Entertainment - be it movies or computer games - is big business with stiff competition and consumers who expect more elaborate and realistic visuals from each new release.

Movies such as ‘Titanic’ and ‘Antz,’ made extensive background use of virtual characters whose movements were generated from a library of pre-captured motions.

These crowds look good from a distance, but unfortunately it’s obvious on closer inspection that the characters are repeating motions and not quite behaving naturally.

While programmers have been able to create fairly realistic animation of animal herds and flocks, such magic with groups of people remains a challenge because the non-verbal communication - gestures and facial expressions - that make up so much of human communication are still difficult to reproduce – but not impossible.

It takes cutting edge software and tonnes of memory and computing power, things that are lacking in game consoles like Xbox and PlayStation for the moment. Be assured, however, that programmers, developers, designers and engineers are working on it.

The groundbreaking software used to create the award winning visual effects in ‘Lord of the Rings’ allowed each character to respond individually to its surroundings. Every virtual soldier was programmed to fight an enemy until they killed it and found another or sustained a fatal blow and died.

However, such advanced software wasn’t without bugs. Initial problems included allies fighting each other instead of the enemy and warriors fleeing battle – not because they were programmed for cowardice, but simply because they were facing the wrong way and kept running

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