Improving campus safety through simulation

A TRU professor has created an interactive virtual campus in an effort to improve campus safety

Mark Hendricks, Science & Technology Editor Ω

Alex Touchet uses a Kinect to navigate the virtual campus. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

Alex Touchet uses a Kinect to navigate the virtual campus. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

TRU professor Andrew Park was faced with a difficult challenge in his research: Park wanted to determine what areas around campus a lone individual would feel fearful walking around in, but he didn’t want to expose anyone to unnecessary risk.

Park’s solution was to create, along with the help of his research assistant Alex Touchet, a virtual and interactive campus. This allowed Park to observe how subjects move around the campus and more importantly what areas they avoid.

“We can locate any places that generate fear, then we can modify the physical settings. We can make brighter lights, or cut tall bushes shorter, things to make people feel safer,” Park said. “By modifying the physical settings of the environments, we can make people safer.”

This virtual campus is part of Park’s ongoing research into how people’s behavior is influenced by fear of crime.

“Environments influence the behaviour of both criminals and victims,” Park said. “Certain environmental features make people fearful and make them avoid certain areas. Narrow alleys, dirty dumpsters, teenagers standing at the corner.”

Park validated his research by observing the way people act in the real areas of town to the simulation that he’s created. Park found that although there is a decrease in the fear response, people still made decisions in the simulation the same way they would in real life.

“I think in terms of choice of route, this is very reliable research data,” Park said.

Park and Touchet have modeled nearly the entire outside TRU campus, only some of the new renovations to Old Main have yet to be realized in the virtual world. Whether or not you’ll ever be able to walk into your classroom in the simulation remains to be seen.

“I haven’t done the insides of buildings,” Touchet said. “That would take forever to do.”

Park and Touchet have also developed a simulation of a few blocks of downtown Kamloops. This simulation is further along, and features a map that asks participants to get from point A to point B by any route they choose.

By giving participants the choice of how they travel to the end point, Park is able to observe how people choose their routes, and if there are certain areas that people avoid.

“More than ten years ago, we did a big survey in the area of Commercial drive [in Vancouver]. We spotted some fear-generating areas and then we did some modifications,” Park said. “After ten years we did the same survey again and people’s perceptions had been changed – that area wasn’t fearful anymore.”

Park and Touchet would like to further their research by integrating virtual reality into their simulation to increase the presence that the test individuals feel. Specifically they’ve been looking into the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is being designed for video games. Fortunately, Park’s simulation mirrors video game development in enough ways that it would be a simple matter to incorporate the Oculus Rift.

“I’ve actually come very close to buying one several times,” Touchet said.

“If we can make people feel presence, meaning making people feel like they’re really there, then we can get more accurate results,” Park said.