Put on your 3-D glasses

Monday, July 25, 2011

The projectors behind the three, 8-foot screens show a virtual reality world that can improve the environment where home medical equipment HME is used. Professor John I. Messner's Immersive Construction (ICon) Laboratory at Penn States Architectural Engineering Department is a dark, windowless room where the healthcare facilities being viewed seem so real there is a special world for it: immersion.

When Kaiser-Permanente began constructing a medical building in downtown Washington, D.C., pharmacists traveled 140 miles to State College to see how their workplace would appear. Among their suggestions: a partition so when two patients are served simultaneously, their privacy is insured.

There is substantial growth in constructing healthcare facilities from hospitals to housing for the elderly. Previously, a model of how a building would look required physical materials like wood and nails. By comparison, virtual reality offers interactive models early in the design process. The resulting efficiency and cost savings (making changes to a building before it is built) are creating a boom in the use of virtual reality in the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. Expectations exceed the ability of the AEC industry to have virtual reality applications ready as quickly as desired.

Sonali Kumar, a graduate research assistant at Penn State, is developing a 3-D model for an independent living facility for elderly and disabled individuals based on the concept of experience-based design. Experience-based design often refers to a body of academic literature, primarily health-care related. Designers are urged to consider the perspective of the individuals who build, maintain, work and reside in the facility, including patients and residents. A common example is the decision of a Philadelphia hospital to build its bathrooms closer to patients beds.

My perspective on Sonali's effort comes from my status as a disabled resident of a primarily elderly independent living facility. For example, I look at an early version of Sonali's model showing a bathtub in the bathroom and say, No. There should be a roll-in shower here. I show an early prototype to Travis Barr, co-owner of T & B Medical here in State College. While fixing my scooter, Travis says, "There should not be cabinet doors in the kitchen. Doors are a nuisance for people with disabilities."

Sonali's model is based on a Blue Roof Technologies cottage in McKeesport, Pa. Pennsylvania has a larger number of elderly people in its population than any other state except Florida. The need for elderly housing is acute. In McKeesport, where the factory for steel pipes closed down leaving a near-ghost town and an elderly population of more than 20%, Robert Walters, a retired Penn State professor, created Blue Roof. The cottages are constructed of pre-fabricated housing and have special sensors inserted in the walls to remind residents when to take their medicine (the walls talk) and to call 911 if a resident falls and does not get up in a timely fashion.

Sonalis model of a Blue Roof cottage makes use of interaction, the most significant new development in virtual reality. Look at the screen shot Sonali took of the power chair inside the kitchen of her model cottage. For those readers who have not spent their productive hours playing video games, an avatar is a virtual reality representation of an actor functioning in a 3-D environment. The avatar in the Sonali's kitchen is a power chair. The power chair makes coffee and toast, opening the refrigerator door to get eggs and milk, and scrambles eggs on a stove the avatar has just turned on. Interactivity is key to understanding how practical people in the construction industry have come to use 3-D technology for practical purposes.

Interactivity is arrived at slowly as Sonali experiments with a wide range of software. I suggested that Sonali replace the 3-D power chair with a scooter. In my experience, a scooter is more mobile and less likely to damage walls and take bathroom doors off their hinges. I ask a manufacturer to provide a 3-D scooter file, but for reasons I cannot explain (because I do not understand), the file does not yet open. Sonali explains, "We are in the process of integrating the computer model obtained from Amigo Mobility." Keep your 3-D glasses on and await future developments. 

Joel Solkoff writes about disability issues from a customer perspective. He is an adjunct research assistant at the Department of Architectural Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University.