The Empathy Effect: Mixed Reality for Design Wins R+D Award from Architect Magazine

Winner of an Honorable Mention from Architect Magazine’s R+D Awards, HGA’s Virtual Reality Study Explores Designing for Disabilities.

The Empathy Effect: Mixed Reality for Design, a virtual reality (VR) experience simulating how people of different ages and abilities move through an environment designed by HGA Architects and Engineers, has earned an Honorable Mention from Architect Magazine’s 11th annual R+D Awards. The R+D Awards celebrate investigations at the forefront of architectural technology, including the groundbreaking research, materials and technologies that are advancing the building industry.

This year’s entries were judged for their documented innovation in fabrication, installation, user engagement and performance as well as their potential to advance the aesthetic, environmental, and social value of architecture. In her juror comment, Mimi Hoang, principal and co-founder of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based firm nArchitects, stated that HGA’s Empathy Effect project “drills into the subtle differences between different kinds of disability so that we can fine-tune the way in which we design for [people with disabilities.] That’s promising.”

“VR is an increasingly valuable instrument in a designer’s toolbox and is most often used to help clients experience the buildings that architects are designing for them,” says Jonathan Bartling, AIA, director of HGA’s Digital Practice Group. “We are pushing virtual reality to better understand the broad spectrum of experiences people have in a space: older people with physical and sensory limitations, people with impaired vision or other disabilities, as well as children, in order to design better environments for them.”

For the Empathy Effect project, the HGA team focused on advanced age. HGA staff from various disciplines wore a body suit that hindered arm and leg movements, along with a VR headset that immersed them in a healthcare environment. Digital filters were applied to the VR experience that simulated vision impaired by cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration; team members monitored their responses. (See video below.)

HGA’s Alanna Carter, LEED AP, healthcare principal says “These VR tools, along with the age simulation suit, allow us to gain unique insight into the physical challenges impacting people with advanced age or disability. With that level of empathy, we can better imagine environments that create a positive impact for not just most people, but all who inhabit them.”

VR Study

“Our study proposed this question: How do we understand how people with physical challenges or disabilities can move safely through the same environment?” Bartling says. “We learned that the question wasn’t simply about impairments and that the answer is about perspective. You can speculate what a person’s experience might be, but seeing it with your own eyes and experiencing it with your own body is a profound revelation.”

The HGA team also developed a VR experience that replicates how a child would experience being in various spaces. In this study, the team adjusted the height of objects in the spaces in relationship to the headset wearer to mimic how a child experiences height.

By 2030, a quarter of the United States population will be 60 or older. “VR is a tool that we hope will transform the way that architects and other designers think about the spaces they build—not just for an ideal user, but for users of all ages and abilities,” Bartling says. “Good design responds to the needs of the people it serves. Design based in experience is where architecture should be heading.”

In addition to Bartling, the project leader, the Empathy Effect study team included Alanna Carter (principal); and Anupam Das, Adam Hunt, Nicolas Ramirez, Tom Suess, Jared Widner (project team). The two other jurors for the 11th Annual R+D Awards were Erin Besler, a principal and co-founder of the Los Angeles–based interdisciplinary architecture and design studio Besler & Sons; and Phillip Bernstein, FAIA, a lecturer in Professional Practice at the Yale School of Architecture, the former vice president of strategic industry relations at Autodesk, and former associate principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.

Read more about HGA’s “The Empathy Effect: Mixed Reality for Design” in Architect Magazine.