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A group of Japanese and other researchers won this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for Kinetics on Thursday for its findings on disruptive effects of smartphone zombies in a crowd of pedestrians.

Hisashi Murakami, 34, assistant professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, and other members of the group received the award at a virtual ceremony.

An Ig Nobel Prize, a spoof of the Nobel Prize that honors humorous but creative research, has been awarded to researchers from Japan for the 15th straight year.

When crowds of people are out and about, they naturally form into lanes to walk, a behavior known as lane formation.

Hisashi Murakami | COURTESY OF HISASHI MURAKAMI / VIA KYODO
Hisashi Murakami | COURTESY OF HISASHI MURAKAMI / VIA KYODO

While the majority of existing research aimed to unravel the phenomenon through mathematical models based on distances between pedestrians, Murakami focused on the future positions of pedestrians.

His team divided 54 student volunteers into two groups and had the two walk from opposite directions.

The team examined disruptions to lane formation that happened when it had three members of one group walk while using mobile phones.

The team found that the mobile phone distraction altered the behavior of participants whose eyes were glued to their phones.

In addition, the smartphone zombies affected participants who walked behind them and oncoming participants, causing nondistracted participants to slow down their walks.

On the other hand, the two groups walked smoothly in tests held without participants on their phones.

Murakami concluded that mutual anticipation in which each pedestrian predicts the moves of others promote self-organization in crowds and enhance the efficiency of traffic flow.

“I’m surprised, but I’m happy to receive the award,” Murakami said. “I hope further research on this subject will contribute to pedestrian flow analysis to prevent congestion and accidents.”

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