Designing Safer Living Spaces

Three members of DCP’s faculty, along with the help of others, have come together to work on research aimed at helping Parkinson’s Disease patients have safer living areas. Named CODY (Co-Design for You), this study allows the patients to use Virtual Reality (VR) to safely design living areas without the need for actually moving anything around.

Sherry Ahrentzen (Shimberg Center for Housing Studies), Ravi Srinivasan (M.E. Rinker, Sr. School of Construction Management) and Shabboo Valipoor (Department of Interior Design) leads this interdisciplinary study that includes researchers from College of Medicine, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Journalism and Communications, College of the Arts and Department of Neurology.

DCP Communications sat down with the team to ask questions about how the study came about and how it’s going so far:

1. How did you come up with the basis for this study?

The Dean’s office had an RFP for a small seed grant.  We decided to knit something together.  Sherry had been researching built environment factors that fostered safe movement of older adults in their home.   Shabboo was interested in environmental supports for people with Parkinson’s Disease, since there hadn’t been much research yet in that area.  Ravi had been developing Virtual Reality simulations for adults with disabilities, allowing them to walk through and experience interior design innovations intended to enhance accessibility.  Michael Okun and some of his colleagues, notably Chris Hass and Adolfo Ramirez-Zamora, had worked with movement challenges of persons with Parkinson’s, some of that using VR.  It all came together.  We applied for the DCP seed grant and didn’t get it.  But later we applied for a much larger grant from the Veterans Administration, and after getting that support, we were able to proceed with this collaborative adventure.

2. What led you in the direction of incorporating virtual reality? 

We believe that the best way for consumers to see whether or not a modification in your home will work for you, is to actually experience it.  Too many times people knock down walls or make other renovations in their homes, only to realize later on that the change doesn’t work for them.  Even building standards like ADA can’t address everyone’s needs and aspirations.  So, how can we get people to experience different interior designs – actually test them out – without having to actually renovate a house?  We don’t have a large construction lab here on the campus, where we could knock up prototypes.  When Ravi was a Ph.D. student at University of Pennsylvania, he and the lab he worked in experimented with Virtual Reality.  Those VR systems have improved greatly since then, and the cost of the equipment has gone down.  We thought this was a good mechanism to try.

3. Since Parkinson’s Disease symptoms are unique to each patient, how did you factor that into your work on the project?

The title of the project – CODY – stands for CoDesign for You.  You are the best person to decide what works best for you.  In the care and therapeutic professions, person-centered planning – tailoring therapy programs for each individual — is very successful.  We wanted to try something similar:  person-centered design, where we could establish some initial parameters for interior design but allow individuals to manipulate features to what works best for them. 

4. How have the subjects handled the testing physically? Any issues with their mobility constraints?

The persons with Parkinson’s in our study were at early stages of the disease.  We wanted to make sure that during our brief testing session that they would be safe, comfortable and not fatigued.  Anyone who became fatigued was given time to rest.  While freezing of gait is often experienced by people with PD, we did not have anyone unable to move during the VR simulations.  Surprisingly to us, most of the people in our study had used a VR headset before.  When we asked how they were familiar with it, they typically replied because their grandkids had shown them!

5. How did they rank the VR in their questionnaire?

Overall, people were very satisfied with the VR experience and had little anxiety about being off balance or falling during the trial.  However, the time was brief and we had them walk in a straight line.  If we had asked them to do this for 10 or 15 minutes or had asked them to walk where they needed to make several turns, we may have had different results.  Another study will need to look at that.

6. Can you go describe the next phase of the study?

We now know that making your own choices of some simple interior features such as doorway width and color contrast of doorway frame can result in improved movement along a straight, short path.  In the next steps, we would like to consider other interior features.  Also, the technology is continually improving.  We used VR headset with cable system, but wireless headsets are now available, not only in Virtual Reality but also Augmented Reality.  AR would allow people to see their own homes – not simply a 3D rendering like we did. 

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