The Mixed Reality Lab at Oklahoma State University provides the students in the Interior Design program the opportunity of using cutting edge VR tools. Students in an early design studio were provided last year with a design problem of designing a house for two older adults. The client narrative suggested that one of the older adults suffered from a physical disability.
The students were instructed to utilize the empathic design process to derive a solution. Empathic design process suggested by Leonard & Rayport (1997) includes the following steps.
In the first step the students visited a Co‐Housing community located in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where they toured some houses that older adults inhabit. This experience was important for them to talk with older adults and understand their needs.
In the second step the students used the G.E.R.T suite and wheelchairs to understand how it felt like to be an older adult. This is one of the most important steps in the empathic design process; putting one’s self in another person’s place. The G.E.R.T suite also called the aging simulation suite consists of multiple parts such as weights that strap on to the body and goggles that simulate conditions of the eye such as cataracts, and macular de generation.
Design firms have used these suites to understand how older adults perceive their environment. For example Corgan, a design firm based in Dallas, used this to understand where to place benches in an airport terminal. The students were instructed to use the G.E.R.T suit as well as wheel chair and then navigate a building in the university to understand how an older adult would navigate the environment. They were instructed to use the Think Aloud Protocol to document how they perceived the environment and then submit a report afterwards.
In the third and fourth steps the students reflected on the experiences and brainstormed design solutions as groups, using the Mixed Reality Lab. They used virtual reality to simulate their design solutions. Rather than using only 2D sketches they designed within Virtual Reality. Coming up with solutions and testing them out. Using virtual reality was important for the students because it reduced the cognitive load imposed on them and allowed them to allocate more resources for the design process. Using SketchUp, the students developed the 3D model, then using Unity 3D they added lights and materials. 3 groups developed immersive virtual environments for the Oculus Rift CV1 HMD, and 3 groups developed immersive virtual environments for the HTC Vive HMD. The students used VR as a mechanism to evaluate their designs. They made changes to the materials and/or lights and then checked if the atmosphere of the space that they designed adhered to their initial concept.
In the final phase they developed prototyped of their design in virtual reality and invited older adults from the co‐housing community to come and review their design solutions. In a posttest survey students expressed that they found that the technology to be useful in their design work.