News Detective: Emily Navigates Clutter

Emily, SNK’s intrepid reporter, treks the aisles of a virtual grocery store.
I’ve always thought of myself as a clumsy person, even though other people don’t necessarily see me that way. I have terrible eyesight, and I occasionally bump into walls and furniture because I can’t judge exactly how far away objects are from me. I also have short, wide feet, which don’t support and distribute my weight as well as I’d like.

Still, despite my balance woes, or maybe because of them, I tend to pursue activities—such as rock climbing and yoga—that push the limits of my ability to remain steady in tricky positions. So, when I visited the Human Movement and Balance Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, I was curious to see if there was anything I could learn personally from the work that scientists there are doing.

As Mark Redfern showed us videos of people slipping on a greased floor, I found myself wondering: Would I be able to recover as easily as some of the stronger subjects? Or would I end up sprawled on the floor like a banana peel? I studied the walking techniques and computer analyses to gather tips for the next time I have to walk on an icy sidewalk or make my way down a leaf-strewn hill.

In Patrick Sparto’s lab, I volunteered to test-drive the virtual grocery store, a program that patients use to get over their fears of falling in crowded or cluttered places. To begin, I stood on a platform, surrounded on three sides by enormous screens. On the screens were images of aisles filled with boxes of Serengeti granola, Brawny paper towels, and cases of Mountain Dew. A large refrigerator unit held yogurt and milk. The scene looked so real, it was surreal.

The machine wasn’t quite working yet when I was at the lab, so I couldn’t push a cart handle and walk on a treadmill to move around the store. Instead, I used a joystick for navigation.

The effect was more stressful than I imagined it would be. As I picked up speed, I started to feel hot and uneasy. Once, I even slammed into the refrigerator. When I finally stepped off the platform, the world around me looked pixilated, like I was stuck inside a video game.

Sparto assured me that I was dizzy only because I couldn’t yet walk on the treadmill. My legs and my eyes were delivering different types of messages to my brain, and so I ended up feeling discombobulated and confused.

It was an important lesson to learn about slips and falls, and it ended up making me feel better. I may not have the best balance in the world, but it could be a lot worse!—Emily Sohn

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