A Virginia Tech student design to make biking safer and more accessible for older cyclists claimed top prize at the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, a global competition to create workable solutions for urgent issues confronting the world’s aging population.

A team of five students from the School of Architecture + Design’s industrial design program won first place in the challenge, along with the $10,000 grand prize for Ride Rite, an assistive, computer-integrated bike handlebar that helps older adults enjoy the healthy benefits of cycling confidently and safely.

The team presented their design onstage at Stanford University last month, earning high praise from judges and beating out seven finalist teams and 75 other college entries. The winning students were juniors Eric Bottelsen from Schaumburg, Illinois; Josh Francis from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eric Lord, from Jupiter, Florida; Maya Pines from Atlanta, Georgia; and Drew Sigler from Marblehead, Massachusetts.

“For me and the rest of the team, this competition really marks a milestone in our careers as designers,” said Francis. “It’s showed us that our designs have potential to really help people, and that in the near future we could actually produce a fully functional prototype.”

The award complements a growing array of recognitions for Virginia Tech’s industrial design program and its work to address the needs of the world’s aging population. According to the Census Bureau, the number of Americans age 65 or older is expected to more than double from 40.2 million to 88.5 million by 2050.

In the Senior Living Studio, led by industrial design associate professors Brook Kennedy and Bill Green and guest instructor Loring Bixler, students research and identify a key problem facing senior citizens – and then solve it through design, working in teams. Ride Rite emerged from the fall Senior Living Studio.

“If you want to age well, it has to start early on,” said Kennedy, who teaches human-centered design at Virginia Tech. “It doesn’t start at 70. It starts at 40 or 30. Part of aging is creating a lifetime of healthy habits. We encourage students to design interventions to help people age well – not just for later in life.”

Ride Rite handlebar

The students chose their concept based on research showing that cycling is one of the healthiest and fastest-growing sports – yet it’s a daunting challenge for many older people concerned about safety and mobility.

Ride Rite aims to solve that through a combination of ergonomic design and technology. Its handlebars are angled for an older person’s shorter reach and grasp. In addition to providing navigation and distance tracking, it includes safety features like brake lights, blind spot warnings, and a fall detection system that alerts an emergency contact.

With its $10,000 prize and interest from judges and possible investors at the competition, the students now hope to bring Ride Rite to a consumer audience. They are exploring partnerships in and outside Virginia Tech to bring a working prototype into production as they enter their final year of college.

The Senior Living Studio enjoys longstanding industry and community support that helps student designers succeed.  

SFCS Architects, a Roanoke-based national design firm specializing in senior living, higher education, and civic/public sectors, has sponsored the studio for a decade.

Each fall, SFCS leaders kick off the studio by presenting their research about the various needs, desires and trends in senior living. The semester culminates with students presenting their work at the firm’s annual By Design conference in Roanoke, which draws hundreds of thought leaders in the senior living industry.

“This is such a meaningful investment of our time and resources,” said Kevin Deck, vice president of SFCS Inc. and a 1982 alumnus of Virginia Tech’s architecture program. “We’re very proud of the student work and would like to see it come to market. We’ve tried to help the students understand that this is not just a project; this is a vocation.”

The students also partner with Warm Hearth Village, a nearby retirement community, to get critical input straight from their target audience.

“The people at Warm Hearth really helped us determine where our design direction was going,” said Bottelsen. “We would generate ideas and they would give us constructive criticism as to whether the ideas had potential or not. At Stanford, as well as Warm Hearth, Ride Rite was received with much love.” 

Loring Bixler, a retired IBM industrial designer, helps students in the Senior Living Studio and industrial design program.

Loring Bixler
Loring Bixler, a retired IBM industrial designer, helps students in the Senior Living Studio and industrial design program.

Guest instructor Bixler, a retired IBM designer and Warm Hearth resident, arranges for students to meet, interview, and present designs to members of the retirement community. Since he relocated to Blackburg five years ago, Bixler has donated his time and talent to the college as a volunteer faculty member and can be found sketching and advising students three afternoons a week in Burchard Hall.

“It’s important to bring designers together with the people they’re trying to understand and serve,” Bixler said. He also reminds students not to reject technology solutions for the elderly.

“You are not designing only for today,” he tells them. “You are also designing products for your future – and your generation will be very familiar with today’s and expanding technologies.”

Ride Rite mounted on a bike

The award for Ride Rite adds to a growing body of global recognition for Virginia Tech’s industrial design program and its graduates. Virginia Tech students have been finalists at the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge three years in a row. They’ve also earned top industry awards from CORE 77, International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), Cradle to Cradle, the International Housewares Association, and A’Design, and have been invited to present their work at Dubai Design Week and the Cooper Hewitt Lab Showcase on Accessibility and Inclusion. Recent award-winning projects range from a more ergonomic walker to a web-based service that connects isolated seniors with young travelers eager to serve.

Virginia Tech’s industrial design program is well-known for equipping students with a complex creative and analytical skillset and a humanitarian approach to improving user experiences with products, technologies, and other challenges.

“The industrial design program at Virginia Tech has caused me to think about the impact product design has on people all around the world,” said student Eric Lord. “Whether we’re designing for a mother in Uganda or a grandfather in the town next door, product design should impact everyone’s life in a positive way. Attending the industrial design program has given me new skills to approach problem-solving in a human-centered manner.”

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