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Haptic Technology Allows Blind Users to Touch Historic Masterpieces
Blind people experience the world with senses beyond sight.
Earlier this year, through a collaboration with the National Gallery of Prague, Spanish startup NeuroDigital Technologies granted blind and visually impaired visitors a chance to touch artwork in virtual reality. Through a series of 3D models of famous statues, users were able to experience art in a way they never have before.
The haptic feedback provided by the gloves is sensitive enough to reflect differences in shape, materials, and even texture. Although the gloves don’t provide fine details, the technology is still new.
The initial project, called Touching Masterpieces, included three historical art pieces: Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s David, and the bust of Nefertiti. The three statues were chosen because human forms are familiar, and would be more recognizable to users who experienced the technology for the first time.
If it’s hard to imagine, consider Steven Spielberg’s movie Ready Player One. The movie envisions a future where virtual reality technology transports people into an alternate universe filled with virtual fantasies.
Haptic gloves enable users to touch 3D objects in virtual space by way of vibrating feedback. When you reach out to touch something, multi-frequency technology stimulates different types of skin cells as well as your sense of depth and texture, giving a detailed sense of the object you’re “touching.”
Developers call art a universal medium of expression that continues to “connect language, time and culture.” For the 36 million people who are blind from birth, and the 217 million who are visually impaired, that art isn’t accessible.
Touching Masterpieces seeks to provide digital access to the things they have never seen before. Developers modified 3D models from laser scans of the original pieces, adding additional layers of texture to improve the tactile experience.
Because the human sensory system has pressure receptors that signal when something comes in contact with our skin, users sense vibrations each time they touch 3D objects in virtual space. The vibrations vary based on the texture and shape of the virtual object.
The haptic gloves allow users to switch between seeing with fingertips, palms, or whole hands, making the experience truly immersive.
Together with Geometry Prague and Leontinka Foundation for the blind and visually impaired, the exhibit ran for two days in Prague.
Although the museum exhibit has ended, users who have the necessary equipment can access the masterpieces from the Touching Masterpieces website,and experience the artwork for themselves. Geometry Prague said that including the digital models on the website will allow other developers to build off the work.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the technology is also beneficial for users who would simply like to feel these famous works, given that museum visitors are usually banned from touching the art.