Virtual danger: Toronto lab recreates the world – and may revolutionize research

[From The National Post]

[Image: The “street lab” recreates the environment outside the hospital. Tyler Anderson / National Post.]

Virtual danger: Toronto lab recreates the world — and may revolutionize research

Tom Blackwell Nov 16, 2011

It looks like a typical, comfortably furnished one-bedroom condominium, with a few notable exceptions — the apartment has no ceiling, it is surrounded by a catwalk that lets scientists peer down at the occupants and the entire thing is situated in a downtown hospital.

“Home lab,” as researchers at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute have dubbed their open-top apartment, is part of an impressive $36-million complex whose units stretch the definition of the word laboratory.

Opening officially Wednesday, the iDAPT facilities use elaborate simulations of everything from an icy Canadian winter to an urban streetscape to devise new ways of preventing or coping with injury and illness.

In the home lab, for instance, engineers are testing a computerized monitor that can detect when a resident has fallen, “talk” to them about what help they need, then call the required emergency services.

Inside another lab, test subjects walk or wheel through a stunningly realistic virtual-reality duplication of the hospital’s neighbourhood, a life-size mock-up that is being used in part to test an intriguing, directional hearing aid.

There is nothing like it in the world. The institute hopes iDAPT will draw researchers and corporate partners to a field of health science that has long been neglected, said Dr. Geoff Fernie, Toronto Rehab’s research head.

“It’s a huge problem for people — more than half of us will be disabled at some point before we die,” he said.

“[But] it just hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves from research. If you’re a bright kid, you get into stem cells or you get into bio-markers. We’ve been … toiling for some time in basement labs and it’s been a bit of a backwater.”

Funded chiefly by the federal and Ontario governments, iDAPT also features a novel collaboration with the private sector. Though the institute is patenting innovations and will earn royalties for those that are commercialized, its goal is to convince companies to get technology to consumers as quickly as possible, not necessarily earn hefty returns on investment, Dr. Fernie said.

The core of the new complex is arrayed in a sprawling Bat-cave of a lair in the hospital’s basement.

On one side of huge metal doors is an adapted version of the bandy-legged motion simulators used to train airline pilots. Three separate pods — each featuring a different environment — can be interchangeably fitted on top and jerked about to mimic the effect of people inside falling or slipping.

Most eye-catching is the street lab. Using thousands of photographs, developers created a virtual depiction of an area around Toronto Rehab, complete with sounds, working stoplights and moving pedestrians and automobiles.

Subjects don a harness and walk a treadmill as they navigate the computer-generated environment. It could be a theme-park attraction, but its research value lies in its dual identity. As a lab, it can be controlled and kept safe, but it also duplicates the real world’s sights and sounds, making it a more realistic way to gauge the effects, for instance, of brain injury, said Jenny Campos, the facility’s chief scientist.

Willy Wong, a University of Toronto engineering professor, is using it to try out a novel hearing aid that, linked to special glasses that track eye movement, automatically cranks up the volume of sound coming from the direction in which the user is looking.

“We are able to take careful measurements of balance and careful measurements of hearing … and we can really evaluate what happens when people have to listen and walk at the same time,” Dr. Campos said.

The ice-floored winter lab, where temperatures can be chilled to -23C, is helping study the effects of cold weather, linked to a 60% increase in the rate of heart attacks and strokes. Another laboratory pod holds a set of stairs; equipment records the force subjects apply as they climb the steps, the movement of their limbs and even eye activity.

Designing safer stairs is another unexpected priority, given the rate of sometimes-deadly accidents on them has been increasing steadily, Dr. Campos said.

The home lab enables researchers to quickly and easily study technology geared to letting seniors live longer in their own homes. The fall-detection device is meant to replace current systems that require people to push a button strapped to their wrists when they take a spill, an action many cannot or choose not to do.

Mounted on the ceiling like a large smoke detector, the new system is fitted with a wide-angle lens programmed to detect people’s posture. When it appears someone has fallen, the computer asks the person if it should contact 911, and automatically makes the call if there is no response, said Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a U of T engineering professor behind the artificial-intelligence invention.

A Toronto condo building for the elderly is looking at equipping its units with the gadget, said Lisa Levin of Circle of Care, a non-profit agency that helps seniors and the disabled.

If it works, she said, “it will literally save lives.”


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