Enter the maze

Understanding parties

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Cocktail glasses on a window sill

The stereotype of a computer scientist is someone who doesn't understand people. For many, how people behave is exactly what they are experts in. Kavin Narasimhan is one. As a student at QMUL she studied how people move and form groups at parties, creating realistic computer models of what is going on.

We humans are very good at subtle behaviour, and do much of it without even realising it. One example is the way we stand when we form small groups to talk. We naturally adjust our positions and the way we face each other so we can see and hear clearly, while not making others feel uncomfortable by getting too close. The positions we take as we stand to talk are fairly universal. If we understand what is going on we can create computational models that behave the same way. Most existing models simulate the way we adjust positions as others arrive or leave by assuming everyone tries to both face, and keep the same distance from, the midpoint of the group. However, there is no evidence that that is what we actually do. There are several alternatives. Rather than pointing ourselves at some invisible centre point, we could be subconsciously maximising our view of the people around. We could be adjusting our positions and the direction we face based on the position only of the people next to us, or instead based on the positions of everyone in the group.

Kavin videoed real parties where lots of people formed small groups to find out more of the precise detail of how we position and reposition ourselves. This gave her a bird's eye view of the positions people actually took. She also created simulations with virtual 2D characters that move around, forming groups then moving on to join other groups. This allowed her to try out different rules of how the characters behaved, and compare them to the real party situations.

She found that her alternate rules were more realistic than rules based on facing a central point. For example, the latter generates regular shapes like triangular and square formations, but the positions real humans take are less regular. They are better modelled by assuming people focus on getting the best view of others. The simulations showed that this was also a more accurate way to predict the sizes of groups that formed, how long they formed for, and how they were spread across the room. Kavin's rules therefore appear to give a realistic way to describe how we form groups.

Being able to create models like this has all sorts of applications. It is useful for controlling the precise movement of avatars, whether in virtual worlds or teleconferencing. They can be used to control how computer-generated (CGI) characters in films behave, without needing to copy the movements from actors first. It can make the characters in computer games more realistic as they react to whatever movements the real people, and each other, make. In the future we are likely to interact more and more with robots in everyday life, and it will be important that they follow appropriate rules too, so as not to seem alien.

So you shouldn't assume computer scientists don't understand people. Many understand them far better than the average person. That is how they are able to create avatars, robots and CGI characters that behave exactly like real people. Virtual parties are set to be that little bit more realistic.