Games used to redesign ‘ineffective’ smoke alarms

Video game developers are helping to design a new detector after studies showed that domestic smoke alarms do not wake most children.

Firefighters and forensic scientists have been testing a combination of sounds, which they believe may be more effective. They are planning a large-scale test for the beginning of the school year in September. It will involve users downloading an app to be used in conjunction with a Bluetooth speaker. The testers will set up the alarm and then send the results back via the app.

‘It’s all about good user experience’

“Games technology comes into play in this phase of testing,” said Dr Dayna Galloway, head of the Games and Arts division at Abertay University. “The aim is to get good data back and the way you do this is design the app in such a way that people find it easy to use. It’s all about good user experience.”

The research is being carried out by Nic Daeid, professor of forensic science at Dundee University, and Dave Cross, a fireman and part-time PhD student at the university. Cross was one of the investigators in the Philpott fire when six children were killed after their parents had set fire to their home. The house was fitted with working smoke alarms, but the children slept through the noise.

Cross and Daeid subsequently conducted a trial in which 34 children between the ages of two and 13 were each tested six separate times over a three week period; over 80% of the children slept through all six of the smoke detector alarms.

Several sounds have been tried for the new alarm and one has been shown to have a 90% success rate in a study of 41 children; it has been machine generated, but sounds like a lorry reversing and is interspersed with a human voice alerting people to a fire.

Intuitive design

“Games design is good at ‘tutorialising’ the user’s interaction so they know what to do at every stage in terms of setting up the alarm, testing and returning data – following the process to the end,” said Galloway. “It could also be used further down the line in the actual product, making it intuitive for people to set up and use.”

The researchers emphasise that they support fire service advice that people should not give up smoke alarms, adding that if a saleable product emerges from their work it would be seen as an additional layer of safety not as a replacement.

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