Intelligent Threat-Sensing Building
August 19, 2019
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
“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
“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
“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.
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.