Spotlight on Prof Nick Tyler, Chadwick Chair of Civil Engineering at UCL
31 January 2020
Nick's research investigates the ways people interact with their environments, and how we can design spaces that are better for people’s needs.
He set up the Accessibility Research Group within the Centre for Transport Studies, with a team of researchers looking at accessibility and public transport.
His research investigates the ways people interact with their environments, and how we can design spaces that are better for people’s needs.
How can we create environments that are better for our health and wellbeing?
We have to think about people right at the beginning of the design process – something we don’t tend to do very well currently.
And then we have to define people. Traditionally, we have designed for “the 95%” – which at first sounds pretty good, but what about the remaining 5% who are then stuck on the edges of society? This 5% is made up of people with different capabilities – not just wheelchair users but people with visual, auditory or cognitive differences as well. We need to better understand these people’s needs and use this to inform the environments we build.
Instead of assuming what people need in their environments, we need to talk to people and take the time to put ourselves in their shoes. We are getting better are doing this, and PAMELA and PEARL are ways we can gather these insights.
Tell me about PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory). How does it help researchers understand the connection between people’s health and their environment?
To study our response to our surroundings, we need a protected environment where we can include or exclude stimuli in a controlled way. PAMELA is like a life-scale laboratory. It’s a space where we can make a ‘real’ environment and control what happens.
Nick Tyler (left) with colleague Tatsuto Suzuki
A PAMELA experiment featuring a replica Tube carriage
We interact with the environments through our brains and the vast majority of our reactions are pre-conscious, meaning we aren’t even aware of them. In PAMELA, we can measure detailed physiological and neurological responses in people. For example, we can create scenarios and monitor their skin response, heart rate, breathing, eye movements and even weight distribution on their feet.
For example, one of the things we’ve looked at in PAMELA is how hearing aids work in complex environments. We built a busy pizza restaurant so that we could recreate lunchtime there and looked at how hearing aid users responded as the noise increased and light decreased. We monitored their head movements to see who they were looking at and how they were following the conversation. At a certain point, they stopped moving and gave up, because the hearing aid was amplifying every human voice except the one they wanted to hear.
How can we get electronics to recognise what bits of conversation are important? To answer this, you need to bring together physics, electronics, audiology, sociology and more.
Could you tell me a bit about your new research space, PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory)?
PEARL is PAMELA in on speed. It’s bigger and faster and will allow us to simulate more environments. It’s so big we can make the environment seem endless.
An artist's depiction of PEARL
We will be able to change the acoustic properties in the building. By turning a knob, we can make it sound like you’re in a living room or Canterbury Cathedral. We can use sound to create the illusion of bigger crowds and see if that changes people’s behaviour. We can even fill the space with certain smells.
An Australian colleague and I were discussing how we could use the space to simulate bushfires; we can recreate disaster zones to figure out how to help people in those situations.
Another of the things we have planned is a driving simulator with an actual real car. We want to use optics and audio to make the driver feel like they’re travelling at 50kmph when really, they’re only going 5. We can use this to examine interactions between cars and pedestrians.
One of the interesting things about PEARL is it’s community-focused. The public can show up and explore, and we encourage researchers and the public to communicate with each other. All the furniture and colours have been carefully chosen to be amenable to conversations. We’ll also have a 600-seat pop-up theatre, so we can show the public how PEARL works.
What are the challenges involved in this type of research?
In the science world, people tend to specialise in one field, like ophthalmology or neurology. But the human body doesn’t work this way – we’re using all of our senses all of the time. We need to take a multisensorial approach to this type of research. The advantage of PAMELA is we can bring people from different disciplines together in one space.
Sometimes when you look at a problem from one discipline’s perspective, it seems insurmountable, but when you bring in different fields you discover it’s solvable.
The Institute of Healthcare Engineering also helps with this interdisciplinarity, by encouraging people to think across boundaries.
What’s next on the research horizon for you?
At the moment, we are putting together projects looking at virtual reality (VR). VR is a fantastic tool for seeing how people respond to different scenarios, but there are drawbacks – it’s difficult to introduce haptics [experience of touch], smell and sounds. You also can recreate the experience of interacting with different groups of people.
In a space like PAMELA or PEARL, you could go even further with virtual reality. So, we’re exploring how you can mesh these two things together.
You can see footage of PAMELA in action in our ‘Innovate’ video (0:31 – 0:44). PEARL is set to open Spring 2021 in Dagenham, East London.