StreetLab, one of seven units at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory, creates a virtual environment based on images of downtown Toronto. Volunteers walk on a treadmill, push a wheelchair or “drive” a car following visual and audio cues from the virtual environment to help researchers find out how we respond to the world around us when we simultaneously move and talk.
Drills whine and metal clangs at a busy downtown Toronto intersection, where concrete barriers and orange plastic pylons block off a chunk of the road for construction. Two traffic officers stand in the centre of the chaos, directing drivers into a single narrow lane. People pushing wheelchairs and strollers hurry across the street at the officers’ signal, careful to avoid loose clumps of cement; pedestrians leaning on walkers and canes take quick, nervous strides.
Crossing the road is second nature to most of us, even when a construction site complicates things. But if you’re dealing with a disability, it’s a different story. That’s especially true at the corner of Elm Street and University Avenue, where patients from four hospitals and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), a research centre for physical rehabilitation, converge. But three storeys beneath that intersection, at StreetLab — one of seven units that comprise TRI’s multi-million-dollar Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory (CEAL) — researchers are conducting experiments to better understand how people react to sights and sounds while walking.
“The real world is very difficult to control,” says neuroscientist Jennifer Campos, the chief scientist at CEAL. “What we have here is the middle ground.”
Inside the cavernous CEAL space, StreetLab is housed in a detached pod about the size of a single-car garage, its exterior playfully painted to resemble the Toronto skyline. Inside, a treadmill faces large screens, mimicking the intersection above. Study volunteers walk on the treadmill while strapped in a safety harness, controlling their speed with a joystick as they cross the virtual street and try to avoid bumping into simulated pedestrians and lamp poles.