• StreetLab simulates street scenes from downtown Toronto to study how people walk. (Photo: Samia Madwar)

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.

WinterLab simulates winter conditions in Canada's urban centres to study how people walk on slippery surfaces and find better way to design boots, scooters and other gear.

StreetLab was launched last fall, and its program is still in the early stages. Researchers are currently working to improve the design of devices such as hearing aids and of urban infrastructure like curbs to help prevent injuries and on treatments to aid people in their recovery from injuries. Take stroke rehabilitation therapy, for example, which traditionally requires patients to exercise their muscles and train their motor skills on a treadmill. When walking in an unchanging environment, says Campos, “your motor system is telling you that you’re moving through space. Visually, however, you have this strong conflict that says you’re not.”

StreetLab’s settings can be adjusted so that virtual cars drive faster and background sounds get noisier. The lab can be transferred onto a platform manoeuvred by what looks like a miniature Canadarm. Once on the platform, StreetLab can be tilted to various angles to simulate slopes or jiggled to mimic the vibrations pedestrians might feel from a passing streetcar.

In StairLab, researchers watch how people climb stairs, walk up ramps and grip handrails. This helps them design stairs, handrails and ramps on sidewalks and in buildings to prevent falls and injuries.

StreetLab currently shares the underground space with two other pods. In StairLab, researchers can study the design of stairs, handrails and ramps to help the elderly, people with physical disabilities and others avoid dangerous falls. Using a snow-blowing machine, fans and special tubes embedded in the floor, WinterLab generates snow, winter winds and ice to find ways to make boots more slip-resistant and sidewalks less dangerous in icy conditions.

Geoff Fernie, vice-president of research at Intelligent Design for Adaptation, Participation and Technology (iDAPT), the TRI research organization that oversees CEAL, says the video-game-like approach helps draw researchers into a field that’s often overlooked. “Rehabilitation research,” he says, “has never been sexy.”

The look and feel of the labs are meant to help make this type of work more attractive to scientists, engineers and funding agencies. “Our goal,” says Fernie, “was to create a high-tech environment to excite students from around the world to come here and work on apparently mundane problems. But any problem, when you look at it, can be very interesting.”