The Drawing Power of Virtual Crowds

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


107 Surge Building - VT Campus

Dr. Sachit Butail
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Northern Illinois University


The mimicking of behavior exhibited by neighboring individuals, called behavioral contagion, plays a fundamental role in how groups of organisms respond to new information. In humans, behavioral contagion is prevalent in situations ranging from normal where for example individuals follow the curious gaze of bystanders, to stressful where people relay fear information that often results in escape waves. Though important to understand, stressful situations in a crowd setting are impractical to reproduce in a lab. In this context, virtual reality presents an opportunity to study this phenomenon in a variety of situations. In this talk, we ask if virtual reality is a viable setup to elicit behavioral contagion in normal virtual environments. I will describe results from a recent study where interactive characters shift their gaze as the participants explore a walkable virtual environment. Our results show that contagion can indeed be triggered in virtual environments and that it is comparable to similar experiments in the real world.  The results also indicate that such setups can be used to address some important questions regarding the mechanics of the phenomenon of behavioral contagion and the role of context. Regarding contagion in a stressful situation, I will also discuss ongoing work with electroencephalogram data to model and regulate the generation of fear emotion in response to aversive stimuli.


Sachit Butail is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Northern Illinois University, where he directs the Emergent and Autonomous Systems Lab. Butail’s current research focuses on the dynamics of human crowd behavior, robotic swarms that can interact with humans, and environmental monitoring. His lab consists of interactive virtual reality setups for studying crowd behavior and instrumented ground and aerial robots for monitoring complex environments.

Butail received his Ph.D. in 2012 in Aerospace Engineering from University of Maryland, College park.  Following that, he was a postdoctoral fellow in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at New York University for a few years where he worked on problems in collective behaviour and animal-robot interactions using methods from machine learning, time-series analysis, and information theory. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation.