Science/Technology

The Minds Behind Tomorrow’s Smart Buildings

Workspaces will listen to people, talk with them and keep them safe. What’s next? USC experts are working on it.

December 11, 2019 Avni Shah

In the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, the space-age family’s efficient machines took care of everyday tasks like cooking, getting dressed and flying through space. While our world is still waiting for flying cars and sassy robot maids, it’s been getting closer to smart buildings that keep us safe and comfortable.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering launched the Center for Intelligent Environments (CENTIENTS) to advance the design of buildings that interact with the people within them. “CENTIENTS supports groundbreaking research and brings together scholars, innovators and leaders to tackle some of the most challenging questions brought about by the fast pace of technology implementation, including security and privacy challenges, how intelligent environments should support the future of work and how to build trust in automation,” says Burçin Becerik-Gerber, co-director and Stephen Schrank Early Career Chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We need to design our future environments to support our goals, rather than dealing with unintended consequences of technology after the fact.”

Here are three futuristic projects funded by the National Science Foundation now underway at the center:

INTERACTIVE SMART WORKSTATIONS

Sensors in an office analyze how a worker feels by scanning everything from her heart rate to her arm position. Over time, the high-tech desk could adjust room temperature and lighting according to the worker’s preferences and make suggestions on posture to avoid ergonomic problems. The workstation aims to improve comfort and personalize well-being in the workplace.

BETTER WORKER-ROBOT TEAMWORK

Robots could potentially solve inefficiencies and safety concerns in the construction industry. But skepticism about automation tends to create barriers. This virtual reality program aims to help people work alongside robots on construction sites. It also trains people for new kinds of work experiences. The teaching project is aimed at workers with different levels of language proficiency and education. It is a partnership between the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering

SMART BUILDINGS FOR EMERGENCY RESPONSE

The center is building an immersive virtual environment to understand how people act when an active shooter enters a building. USC Viterbi and USC Price School of Public Policy researchers will study whether a building’s features could influence behavior and increase security.