A Peak into Canada’s First Living Lab for Rehabilitation Research

From the outside, Alexis Nihon may seem like just another regular shopping mall. In the heart of downtown Montreal, the shopping center is bustling with eager shoppers and corporates on their lunch break. With a little more scrutiny, however, you might observe a team of researchers in the mall’s hallway testing an innovative rehabilitation technology in a real-world setting. This is because, since 2011, Alexis Nihon is also the ‘RehabMaLL’, Canada’s first living lab for multidisciplinary rehabilitation research. A unique partnership between a shopping center and the CRIR (Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire en réadaptation du Montréal Métropolitain), the living lab aims to optimise physically and socially inclusive environments.

But wait.. What is a living lab anyway?

The idea behind it is so simple, yet so intuitive for rehabilitation research that it is a mystery why we do not see more of them in the field. A living lab takes research out of a traditional academic laboratory and drops it in a real-world setting. This might seem controversial to the more old-fashioned, white-coated researchers among us, but what better place to validate the use of a rehabilitation technology than in the field itself? Bringing together researchers and students from various areas of expertise such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, engineering, and computer science to collaborate on projects, this multidisciplinary approach is truly innovating the way we understand and do rehabilitation research.

Innovation through collaboration

a smart power wheelchair.JPGOne of the projects brought forward by the RehabMaLL team is the development and evaluation of a smart power wheelchair. Developed by a multidisciplinary and multi-university team including rehabilitation professionals, engineers, and computer scientists, the prototype is equipped with laser and soundwave sensors to detect obstacles within a 6-15 meter radius of the chair. The reflected data from the lasers and the soundwaves is integrated into the chair’s software to create a virtual map of the indoor environment. It also has several cameras recording the trajectory taken by the patient controlling the wheelchair. Perhaps the most striking feature of the smart power wheelchair is the tablet used by the patient to command the chair when it is in ‘smart mode’. The interface is a split screen, the left side occupied by the command buttons and the right side occupied with the virtual map created by the software.

a smart power wheelchair.JPG
The chair has several commands integrated into the software: go forwards/backwards, turn right/left, 360 turn, and park. These commands are controlled by the wheelchair driver when it is in ‘smart mode’. Moreover, they are all integrated with obstacle-avoidance, such that the chair will automatically avoid obstacles if they suddenly appear in front of it. To test the usability of the smart power wheelchair, the research team recruit study participants that are already users of power wheelchairs. The participants are then guided by the research team to perform a series of tasks drawn from the Wheelchair Skills Test, in the hallway of the RehabMaLL. These tasks are completed in ‘smart mode’ as well as in ‘manual mode’ for comparison purposes. The performance of the participant on each of the tasks in both modes is rated by a trained occupational therapist.

The smart power wheelchair is an innovative technology that is the product of a collaborative approach to research. It is the result of a fruitful collaboration between different academic institutions, areas of expertise, and crucial partners like Alexis Nihon shopping center. The project expands its collaborative network to also include the user of the power wheelchair. To gain insights into the user experience of using their prototype, the research team heavily involves the participant in the evaluation process, by conducting a usability interview after the testing session. In another phase of the study, the participant is invited to view a video recording of the testing session, and encouraged to reflect on what he or she could have done differently or what he or she did or did not like.

Living labs: the future of rehabilitation research

The smart power wheelchair is only one example of the many ongoing projects in the RehabMaLL. The potential of technology to optimize rehabilitation is clear. But if we want to develop rehabilitation technologies that stick, living labs are the way to go. Living labs are paving the road to the future by bringing rehabilitation research into an era of patient-empowerment and multidisciplinary collaboration. Let’s hope to see more of these initiatives across the country!

Special thanks to the Research Team: Anne-Marie Hébert, Dr. Dahlia Kairy, Mahmoud Ghorbel, Paula Rushton, Favio Alejandro Cruz Gutierrez, Alejandro Hernandez.