A Scottish practice has invented software that allows designers to glimpse how people with dementia perceive their environment
The Virtual Reality Empathy Platform (VR-EP) might sound like a futuristic tool for curing sociopaths, but is in fact cutting edge immersive software designed to help architects improve the lives of people living with dementia.
Users of the system, invented by David Burgher, director at Scottish Borders-based Aitken Turnbull Architects, don a pair of VR goggles to experience building environments through the eyes of a fictional person living with dementia, including a range of visual distortions unique to the condition.
‘When our digital filter is applied your perception is changed,’ he says. ‘There is a haziness, things are less clear, depth of field is reduced so, for example, when looking down a corridor you can't see the end.’ The software modifies colour too, to increase awareness of dementia perception. A key consideration is colour choices for floors, as some can look like a step causing people living with dementia to lift their leg and fall. ‘There is a significant colour desaturation (with the software) and the level of contrast of an object becomes much more important than the colour,’ Burgher adds.
The product was developed in partnership with Glasgow-based CGI company Wireframe Immersive and experts at the research organisation HammondCare Dementia Centre. It is aimed at helping architects, or interior designers, improve the design of care homes, hospitals, sheltered housing, or other environments, to reduce accidents, lessen anxiety, and help dementia sufferers to live more independent lives.
Burgher says: ‘At Aitken Turnbull we have many years of experience in designing buildings for the elderly and for people living with dementia and have gained valuable insight into the condition, which allows us to empathise with those who live with it.
‘As well as reducing anxiety, improved design can offer a better, safer and more independent quality of life. Dementia-friendly design doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, by using VR-EP, designers will get it right first time and therefore reduce costs.’
Poor design in a healthcare setting can affect a dementia sufferer in several ways. Signage at eye level is difficult to see for a person with poor neck muscles and who doesn’t understand they need to look up. A bedside light might not be easily recognisable as a light.
Neutral tones appear bland and potentially indistinguishable, for example, a bed might be difficult to distinguish from the floor and wall, increasing the risk of falls.
The VR-EP device requires connection to a laptop with a good graphics card; 3D environments are navigated using a game controller. It was developed with £50,000 of funding from Scottish Enterprise and is projected to generate 10 times that amount in sales, £500,000, by the third year of trading. A scoping exercise, in collaboration with Scottish Development International, is underway to assess exports of the device to Europe, China and the US. They are also trying to make the software affordable for designers. ‘The cost structure is still being worked out but in future we are aiming to sell a kit of parts to enable anyone to run the experience and it is embedded into the design process,’ Burgher says.
According to Wireframe Immersive, the system has the potential to be adapted to simulate other sensory impairments across a spectrum of disorders. Professor Mary Marshall, senior consultant at the HammondCare Dementia Centre’s UK team, comments: ‘One of the biggest challenges for researchers, trainers and consultants in dementia design, is how you convey the experience of the environment for people living with dementia. This device has the potential to be immensely beneficial for researchers, commissioners, architects and interior designers, and many other professionals in this field.’
There are more than 800,000 people in the UK living with dementia, a figure that is expected to rise to 1.7 million by 2051. Dementia costs the UK economy £26.3 billion per year, more than cancer and heart disease combined.