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When one human views another, a significant amount of information is received on body language and facial expression. When analyzed, this information can provide valuable insight into how a person feels, and offer actionable intelligence on how to act, depending on objectives. As smart buildings strive to improve occupant health and wellbeing, there is no reason they can’t do the same thing.

PhD researcher Mark Allen is exploring the idea of using video data to gauge occupant well-being in buildings. The aim is to use this information to enable building management systems to control indoor environments in ways that can help to maximises occupant well-being, productivity and creativity.

“New developments in programs incorporating artificial intelligence could enable the well-being of building occupants to be actively monitored using the cameras in their own laptops. This could allow for the building to be controlled (even designed) in ways that help to maximise wellbeing,” says Allen.

As part of a wider health shift in society over the last decade or two, commercial office buildings have been taking measures to improve the health of their occupants, the employees. This is not simply the benevolent act of health conscious bosses but the direct consequence of understanding that more physically, mentally and emotionally healthy employees are usually more productive employees.

“Health, wellbeing and productivity encompass a whole range of related and complex issues. Health encapsulates physical and mental health, wellbeing hints at broader feelings or perceptions of satisfaction and happiness, and productivity refers more explicitly to business oriented outputs,” explains John Alker, director of policy and communications at the UK Green Building Council.

In a supermarket, emotional surveillance may detect the frustration of shoppers in queues – prompting the opening of more checkout tills; or it may sense indifference to a promotion – prompting the store to rethink a sales strategy. Equally, supermarket staff may be monitored to assess when breaks are needed. Similar examples could be made with patients and staff at healthcare facilities, students and teachers in schools, or prisoners and guards in prisons.

In the office, the bottom line of such technology would be to increase productivity of employees, the fact that it also benefits the occupant serves to encourage acceptance of the technology. “By accepting that healthier employees are more productive workers, businesses can view health and productivity as a virtuous cycle, and therefore treat investment in health promoting workplaces as a direct path to returns in productivity and greater profit,” we discussed in our comprehensive report: The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era.

Allen’s project takes advantage of the latest developments in emotion recognition software, while also integrating other programs like speech and posture detection. In combination, he hopes to create a system that can accurately gauge the wellbeing of occupants in such a way that the building can act on that data. This builds on the work of Bartlett et al., in 2014, who believed that “with the incorporation of artificial intelligence and machine learning, some can even recognise emotions better than humans.”

“Using these softwares to gauge occupant well-being could allow the Building Management System (BMS) to proactively change environmental conditions within a building (such as temperature or CO2) to maximise occupant well-being, productivity and creativity. Additionally, it could be used to create a database of evidence for ‘design for well-being’, which is currently lacking,” explains Allen.

His research will involve cameras distributed to participants based in offices throughout the UK, and each month the volunteers will answer a questionnaire to gauge their level of well-being. Allen hopes this two-pronged approach will allow for data from the two research methods to be brought into alignment, thereby eventually enabling it to predict well-being from camera data alone.

“If it works, this technology would be a step change in the quality of data available to building managers and designers on the well-being of building occupants, when combined with existing environmental monitoring. With the rise of smarter buildings, this information will become more valuable as it can be incorporated into the control strategy of the adaptive elements of the building. The end result will happier, healthier and more creative building occupants,” Allen forecasts.

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