Virtual environment makes Purdue’s real-life accessible biology wet lab available worldwide

Envision Center's George Takahashi and professors Brad Duerstock and Phillip Dunston in Purdue's Accessible Biomedical Immersion Laboratory (ABIL).
3-D version
A still image from the 3-D virtual version of Purdue's Accessible Biomedical Immersion Laboratory showing the lab's accessible work triangle, including a wheelchair-accessible sink and fume hood.
Purdue faculty members and ITaP’s Envision Center for Data Perceptualization have developed a Web-enabled, 3-D virtual environment that recreates the real-life Accessible Biomedical Immersion Laboratory (ABIL) located at Purdue’s Discovery Learning Research Center.

ABIL, an initiative of Purdue’s Institute for Accessible Science (IAS), is a biology wet lab designed with accessibility in mind. In part, the goal of the lab is to serve as a model for making science careers more attainable for people with disabilities, including injured veterans.

The virtual version of ABIL, which can be toured from any computer with an Internet connection, allows anyone to experience the features and best practices developed for the Purdue lab, says Brad Duerstock, an associate professor of engineering practice in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Industrial Engineering who heads the Institute for Accessible Science.

“Not everyone can come to see the physical space,” says Duerstock, who partnered with civil engineering Professor Phillip Dunston and the Envision Center to develop the virtual lab. “We’re trying to bridge the physical with virtual reality, to take what we’ve learned in ABIL and get it out there.”

Duerstock says the 3-D virtual environment also allows users to change perspectives from standing to sitting in a wheelchair to get a better feel for the lab’s accessibility features. Likewise, it lets lab personnel and prospective science students with disabilities get an idea of physical challenges in a typical biomedical or chemistry lab. This understanding can allow both researchers and new students who use a wheelchair or have visual impairments to arrange needed accommodations before going to work in an actual lab.

The Envision Center built the virtual version of ABIL using Unity, software for creating immersive environments widely employed, among other things, in building computer games.

One advantage of Unity is the ability to run environments created with it in almost any Web browser through a plugin, similar to Adobe’s Flash plugin, says ITaP’s George Takahashi, the Envision Center technical lead.

The Envision Center also ported ABIL to its room-sized, four-walled immersive virtual environment on campus and has developed a version for personal computer users to run through the IAS Hub.

ABIL, both the real-world and the virtual versions, includes an accessibility feature at seemingly every turn.

For example, the safety showerhead and eye washbasin, standard features in such a lab, extend out from the water line and wall to make room for positioning a wheelchair underneath. There also are two shower pulls, one positioned lower for wheelchair access, and a 3-D wall sign and large directional floor signs, the better to identify the station for people with low vision. Moreover, Braille signage is available throughout the lab.

Likewise, the lab includes a wheelchair-accessible “work triangle,” with lab bench, sink and fume hood, the three most common work areas in wet labs, placed close to each other for easy access.

The lab bench has such features as a powered adjustable-height top, a talking scale, a motion-activated biohazard disposal bin and an automated paper towel dispenser that cuts the towels automatically as well.

The sink is lower and positioned more toward the front with space underneath for a wheelchair and it has larger, paddle-style faucet handles that are easier to manipulate.

The fume hood work counter also is designed for wheelchair access, with lever-style valve handles and lowered on-off switches.

The Envision Center uses a blend of technology and art to help faculty enhance research and teaching by graphically representing data and information through techniques such as scientific visualization, animation, motion capture and immersive 3-D virtual environments. For more information about Envision Center services, contact George Takahashi, 49-61862,

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Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-494-8167 (office), 765-426-8545 (cell),