Digital technologies and architecture for a more inclusive society

Digital technologies and architecture for a more inclusive society

First of Four Novel Tandem Professorships Combining Humanities and Engineering Sciences Starts with Real Lab at KIT

New professorship tandem at KIT: Architect Caroline Karmann (left) and computer scientist Kathrin Gerling (right) do research together. (Photo: Tanja Meißner, KIT)

Independent living and full participation in all areas of life are clear goals of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In it, the signatory states have committed themselves to measures that ensure equal access, for example, to the physical environment as well as to information and communication. In the "Digital Accessibility and Assistance Systems for People with Disabilities" real laboratory at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), research is being conducted into how the interaction of digital technologies and the design of the spatial environment in buildings and cities can enable all people to participate in society on an equal and self-determined basis.

"Our goal is to build a bridge between people, technologies and the spatial environment. To do this, we combine research in computer science and architecture," says Professor Kathrin Gerling, who researches human-machine interaction. Together with architect Professor Caroline Karmann, she forms the first of several novel professorship tandems at KIT. In these tandems, two people - one from the humanities and social sciences and one from the technical and natural sciences - do science together. "Together, we investigate the interfaces between technology, the built environment, and the people who live in it. In this way, we are exploring the potential of novel technologies to break down barriers for people with disabilities," Karmann explains. The goal is an inclusive society.

Interaction between assistance systems and the built environment for greater participation
Kathrin Gerling is concerned with the accessibility of interactive and body-centered technologies such as wearable systems or virtual reality from the perspective of assistance and participation. "For me, it's about creating accessibility that goes beyond just overcoming obstacles and enables positive, enriching experiences for users," says the computer scientist. Together with Karmann, she will explore how appropriate technologies can be used in combination with the built environment to break down barriers and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Caroline Karmann works on climate-smart and barrier-free design of buildings and cities that support independent living for people with disabilities. "When we talk about inclusion in the built environment, it means that people can feel welcome and like they belong, regardless of individual limitations. Take a building on campus: how can we design the entrance, access, signage, room layout, lighting and acoustics so that rooms are legible for people with visual impairments, for example? Technology can lead to further solutions here. For example, could a digital walk-through of spaces using virtual reality before entering an unfamiliar place help users? Our research questions relate to the safety and comfort of spaces for all, and it is important to us to develop our solutions together with people with disabilities," says the construction expert.

ACCESS@KIT supports people with blindness in their studies
In contrast to research in a controlled atmosphere behind closed doors, science in a real lab takes place in interaction with people. That's why the two scientists work closely with ACCESS@KIT, the Center for Digital Accessibility and Assistive Technologies. The center supports disabled students at KIT. Currently, this includes about 30 students with blindness or visual impairment.

Real Lab Professorships: Research for Society
KIT focuses on transformative research at the interface to society and is establishing four new reallabs for this purpose in the years 2022 to 2025. In each of them, one professorship from the humanities and social sciences and one from the technical and natural sciences will work together intensively. With these "professorship tandems" (KIT Real-World Lab Professorships), KIT is pursuing a unique interdisciplinary approach. The real-world lab professorships are part of the 100 Professorships Program with which KIT will make its top-level research even more efficient and agile within ten years. Initially, reallabs will be established on autonomous systems, on human-machine interaction and accessibility, and on dealing with risks. A fourth one on risk strategies for the decentralized energy turnaround will follow.