With funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, we took up the challenge of providing access to a number of objects that cannot be handled by developing a Haptic Interactive with a technology provider based in Stoke On Trent. The interface consists of a touch-enabled computer system which allows the user to investigate and explore the topography of an artefact within a 3-dimensional digital environment through a feedback stylus.

Haptics technology started emerging in the late 50’s early 60s, with scientists such as Ralph Mosher (1962-64) who used the technology as a component in his robotic systems and exoskeletons (GE Pedipulator). Traditionally human interactions with computers have been predominantly visual, using text, data or imagery on screen. The keyboard or mouse is used to input and manipulate this data but there is no physical response relayed back to the user as a result of those actions. Haptics can provide both touch (tactile) and motion (kinaesthetic) feedback and can simulate physical properties, such as the weight of an object, the user can feel friction, texture or resistance and the haptic hardware can com-municate those properties and lets the users sense what is happening on the screen. Haptic interfaces come in many forms, such as touch mice, gloves, styluses and joysticks. a common arrangement uses an articulated stylus to link a person’s fingers to a computer interface. The Phantom haptic device (SensAble) was created by J. Kenneth Salisbury and Thomas Massie at the MIT and has a pen (stylus) or a fingertip thimble which acts as an interface.

The Manchester Museum’s interactive provides a digital experience using objects from our new Ancient World galleries which opened in October 2012.

Over the past 18 months Christopher Dean (Touch and Discover Systems) and I worked with an enthusiastic focus group from Henshaws Society for Blind People. The focus group chose three objects for the interactive: a faience shabti [380-343 BC], Greek jug [500-475 BC] and Pre-Dynastic hippo bowl [4000-3500 BC].

Michael handling a museum object and the Henshaw's focus group choosing objects for scanning
Michael handling a museum object and the Henshaw’s focus group choosing objects for scanning

The objects were laser scanned producing very accurate models that were placed in a virtual 3dimensional environment. These artefacts are unlikely to be ever used on a handling table and once inside a case remain largely inaccessible to the visually impaired.

Laser scanning the pre-dynastic hippo bowl (4000-3500BC)
Laser scanning the pre-dynastic hippo bowl (4000-3500BC)

We recognized that the visually impaired end user had to be involved in developing the interactive from the very beginning, because we needed the group to give us their insights and constructive criticism as we developed the interfaces.

The group guided us through the process of creating adaptations that helped them to locate the objects and the added information within the navigable 3D digital space.

Peter describing what he is sensing in the first incarnation of the interface
Peter describing what he is sensing in the first incarnation of the interface

The user holds a ball shaped stylus between the fingers and the yellow ball on the screen mimics the movement of the ball in the fingers; for the visually impaired, the user feels a resistance when the ball on the screen comes into contact with the surface of the object or the surrounding “room”. A grooved ring was also introduced on the floor to give a reference to the entire space and the objects are either in the centre of this ring or above a reference depression points in the ring. This can be seen in the image as a blue ring and the depressions in the ring are red. These depressions in the ring also allow the user to move between screens, change the orientation of the object or bring up additional information about the material qualities of history of the object.

The addition of sound was another important element, giving vocal instructions and an indication of the objects material qualities and character. For example a broken ceramic gives a dull sound whereas a high-fired ceramic can give a musical ring.

Haptic unit on the new gallery
Haptic unit on the new gallery

The first room has everyday objects placed around the “room” which make a sound when they are tapped; while the user explores the space we hope that they become more comfortable using the ball stylus. Once passed this first screen the interactive has a series of “rooms” which deal with different aspects of the objects history, manufacture or use.

The Probos® haptic unit is now a permanent feature of the Manchester Museum’s galleries. The haptic interface does not replace the handling experience, but it can augment a visitors understanding of an object and increase their knowledge and enjoyment on a visit. We are at the beginning of understanding how we can use haptics to create a truly meaningful experience, there is still much work to be done but now we have a platform and a device that we can develop. There are exciting possibilities for using this technology as it becomes more universally used as a 3D platform to create enjoyable and playful ways to explore real objects and their stories. A portable version of the system exists and is used for outreach to groups that may have problems getting to the museum.

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