Please touch the art (Multisensory Access – bringing visual art to life through touch and sound)

Museums project developing sensory technology for blind and partially sighted

An ongoing project with the Oxford University Museums is working to improve access to visual art works via audio and haptic interfaces for people who are visually impaired.

The project, which started in September 2016, marries the expertise of the e-Research Centre in developing and applying technology in research and industrial applications, with the Museums' in-depth knowledge and expertise in public engagement. The project builds on previous work by the Oxford University Museums with blind and partially sighted people through the HLF-funded "Sensing Culture" project led by the RNIB, and current research in the Department of Experimental Psychology into how blind and partially sighted people (BPSP) perceive pictures.

The RNIB estimates that there are about two million people in the UK who are registered blind or partially sighted. Because so much of what is presented in galleries is visual, BPSP can face a diminished visitor experience. Mrs Pamphilon, who runs a social group for visually impaired people in Oxfordshire, says: "I get really frustrated when I go to a museum and there's no way to experience it. Having things you can touch and feel just opens up a whole new world".

Currently museums tend to provide raised 'touch tiles' which give a physical indication of the visual shapes and textures of an artwork. However, research has shown that the raised images are both difficult to interpret and miss fine nuances of the piece, and often require specialist audio description provided by a trained member of staff.

Susan Griffiths, Community Engagement Officer at Oxford University Museums, says, "Our aim is to create a tool that can allow blind and partially sighted people to independently engage with some of the world famous visual arts held by the Oxford University Museums, in particular the Ashmolean. We will be building on our existing knowledge from working with local BSP communities and taking it forward in an exciting new direction. We hope it will not only benefit BPS visitors, but improve the visitor experience for everyone coming to the museums".

Strand one of the project, led by the Museums with support from Dr Torø Graven (Department of Experimental Psychology), focused on understanding the tactile sensations that can be used to assist BPSP to experience the tiles (eg line fineness, texture of lines and surfaces, shape of features such as curves and angles, use of colour for partially sighted people), what kind of audio description should accompany the tiles and how it should be activated.

The R&D strand, led by Iain Emsley, Research Associate at the e-Research Centre, aimed to determine how best to develop cheap and efficient methods of creating touch tiles that can provide the tactile sensations identified in strand one.

As part of the research an Android application was developed to enable the modelling of how people touch the paintings and photographs. As a sighted person, it is extremely difficult to comprehend how touch is used to explore raised images – 'touch tiles' – of visual art works.

Working with the existing Touch Tours, provided by the Museums, and focus groups over 6 months they collected data on how touch is used when exploring the tiles, including its attentiveness to features, its exploring pattern, and its preferred touch tile material. They soon realised they needed more detailed data on exploration pattern, and so developed an application that could track and record both pressure and movement.

The tile was placed on top of a tablet screen. This application enables the modelling of exploring movements and pressure, along with time spent on different features, e.g. for how long a certain shape is explored. This information will now enable further development of the interface.