Sensing change: human sensor movement

How can human sensor movement technology influence the design of university spaces? Keri Beckingham speaks to the experts to find out

In today’s world where efficiency and sustainability are key considerations, the design of new buildings often focuses on the people who will use them, through an approach known as human-centred design. 

But what are the reasons behind this, why is it so important and what can universities learn as a result?

People-focused design

Nathan Lonsdale, partner at architecture and design firm The Lab, agrees that as spaces are ultimately used by people, it makes sense that they’re designed to meet their needs. Lonsdale says: “Through careful and considered design, we can build communities, enhance cultures, solve problems, unite people, maximise engagement, improve efficiency, save money, support mental and physical wellbeing and promote happiness.”

A key element of human-centred design also focuses on the need to understand how and why people use particular spaces within a building. 

As Nick Smith, regional sales manager at Genetec, explains: “We’ve got to design buildings in the same way that we design the software and solutions for that building. They have to be centred around the people who will use them, which means being nice and light, and supporting the flow of people as they move around the building.”

We all want spaces to work better for us, and if technology can help universities to be more human-centred, it can only be a good thing, right? – Matt Marson

What is human sensor movement?

Architectural design consultants Atkins say that human sensor movement enables architects and building designers to understand the movement of people in different spaces through the use of a variety of technology.

Commenting on the sensor technology that can be used to record human behaviour and activity, Caroline Paradise, head of design research, says: “Firstly, there are those that can be placed in spaces; for example, motion sensors such as accelerometers or passive infrared (PIR) can detect presence or number of people, or combining two sensors to indicate a direction of travel.

“Secondly, personal sensors – such as those in wearable devices or smartphones – can provide more specific data such as location, or biometric data such as heart-rate or blood pressure. This can be combined with environmental sensors to collate the direct human data against temperature, humidity and air quality.”

Matt Marson, head of smart places at WSP, has worked with clients to help make their buildings smarter in terms of energy efficiency and spatial design. 

In terms of  how universities can use human sensor movement technology, Marson comments: “A bank of PIR sensors can be installed in a mesh in the ceiling of a particular space to monitor and record what is happening below and this will help building owners to look at how the space is used over time.”

Optimising spaces

By interpreting the data that is gathered from the sensors, it is possible to identify patterns of usage across a building, and therefore analyse the potential opportunities for optimising spaces that are currently underused. In turn, this could enable universities to increase the efficiency of their energy usage based on occupancy data and also help their bottom line in the process.

Discussing the benefit of this, Lonsdale comments: “This could help universities to reconfigure their space to use it more efficiently, helping them to better support their people and their needs, while also saving them money.”

Smith believes that software is critical for utilising the data collected by sensors. He says: “The software will allow university estates managers to collect a massive amount of information that can be presented in real time, and allow them to create a clearer picture of what is going on, and whether lights and heating need to be turned off at particular times.”

Atkins is currently working with one university to install a lighting control system where each light has its own movement sensor, and this is then linked to all other lights via a communications system. This system collects all data from the sensors into one central database, which the university can then employ for other uses such as measuring occupancy or the building’s energy performance. 

Ben Roberts, digital strategy lead for the building design team at Atkins, comments: “It adds a great deal of flexibility to the university space, allowing for areas to be split up into separate sections depending on user needs (from large seminars to small meetings), with lighting easy to adapt to suit due to it all being on one connected system.”

  This could help universities reconfigure their space to use it more efficiently, helping them to better support their people and their needs, while saving them money  – Nathan Lonsdale

The use of human sensor movement in today’s universities

In The Lab’s experience, today’s universities are starting to realise the importance of understanding how their spaces are being used, and human sensor movement technology can also enable students to utilise spaces more effectively. As Lonsdale explains: “Data showing the occupancy levels of certain spaces could help inform their decision of where to work on a particular day.”

The heritage of campuses and existing buildings is something that Marson has seen universities struggle with, in terms of thinking that it isn’t possible to make these spaces smarter. 

Commenting on his experience, he explains: “Heritage is a key part of a university’s brand, and it is not only important for them to retain their assets, but also to use tech to repurpose old spaces and make them smarter, as well as increase their value proposition to students. 

“Human sensor movement can help universities deliver spaces or services that are more appropriate to the needs of today’s students.”

In addition, Marson doesn’t think that human sensor movement is something that universities have really explored as yet, and he believes that a lot more can be done. 

He says: “I would like to see more pilots across the higher education sector, so that universities can see what they are able to learn and build a business case for exploring the technology further, as it is still so new. 

“We all want spaces to work better for us, and if technology can help universities to be more human-centred, it can only be a good thing, right?”

The software will allow university estates managers to collect a massive amount of information that can be presented in real time, and allow them to create a clearer picture of what is going on, and whether lights and heating need to be turned off at particular times    – Nick Smith

Looking ahead

For Atkins, the next step for human-centred design will be to agree some basic fundamental conventions for naming and classifying the data that is collected in order to inform machine-learning algorithms for the optimisation of spaces. 

As Stephen Clark, practice manager, says: “As human sensor technology develops, we will also see an improvement in the detailed understanding we can gain about the interaction of people and the built environment.”

In June, The Lab will be launching Sense, its first product to unlock human sensor technology’s full potential. 

Commenting on the reasons behind this, Lonsdale says: “Imagine a self-regulating space that is kind to the environment and harmoniously connected with nature… where the architecture has been conceived, designed and created from the inside out… an agile, healthy and sustainable space where everything has been designed around you, so you can be brilliant and get on with what you do best. Sensor technology has the potential to achieve all this.”

Matt Marson believes that, in the future, smartphones and wearables will be used more for space utilisation, saying: “There is a lot of opportunity ahead of us, which is exciting.”

Nick Smith believes that Bluetooth will be the next big thing for the human-centred design arena, as it can be used to track people in an anonymous way. He concludes: “In today’s world, most people carry a Bluetooth-enabled device, and building designers can use a wireless network to create a mesh that can track building users as they move throughout the building.” 


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The University of Birmingham trials sensor technology on campus

The University of Birmingham is trialling three sensor devices on campus to monitor the occupancy levels of key study spaces. 

OccupEye is a PIR sensor that is placed under desks to detect if the desk is in use by monitoring movement; Brickstream is a stereoscopic infra-red sensor that detects movement using thermal imaging); and HPD2 is a passive optical sensor that creates and analyses a static image of a given space. 

The university hopes that these devices will help to make efficient use of space on campus and also provide students with real-time occupancy information via their Study Spaces website.

Aims of the research

A university spokesperson comments: “The University of Birmingham has been exploring the use of sensor technology to help us achieve two aims: to help students find available study space on campus; and to gain a better understanding of how our space is used compared to what was planned or timetabled. 

“We are piloting several technologies, and we are working with colleagues across the sector to share our learnings and find more opportunities to improve the student and staff experience.”

In terms of detecting the identity of individuals, neither the Brickstream nor the OccupEye sensors can record images or sound, and although the HPD2 device does capture a temporary image, this is immediately deleted after 30 seconds.

As well as monitoring the usage of study spaces, the university plans to use the collected data to make improvements to its room bookings, building management and energy use.

Source: bit.ly/31mg1pb