OU technology research explores theatre experience of visually impaired

The Question, Extant’s cutting edge immersive theatre installation using specially developed haptic technology in partnership with The Open University’s Computing Department, will be launched at Battersea Arts Centre in June 2010.

The Questionis partly inspired by the published dialogues between sighted philosopher Bryan Magee and blind philosopher Martin Milligan. Milligan disputed Magee's claim that our knowledge of reality differs based on our experiential knowledge. This project is the first to dramatically explore what this means by challenging sighted and visually impaired participants to experience the same reality through a shared and unique navigational experience.

Participants enter a pitch-black installation and are guided around by a handheld haptic device. Haptic technology uses the sense of touch as a means of communication by applying forces, vibrations, and/or motions to the user. The device, the newly designed haptic ‘Lotus Flower’, changes shape as participants move through the space, triggering sound on their headphones when they approach a ‘zone’. These ‘zones’ can be explored whilst hearing the blind protagonist, both live and through headphones, recounting past memories of philosophical, mathematical, historical and experiential recollections with an extraordinary grasp on time and space.

The Lotus Flower uses robotics technology and infrared sensors to change shape in response to the users’ journey through the installation and gives sighted and visually impaired people the same navigational ability as they explore the tactile and audio environment.

Dr Janet van der Linden, Senior Lecturer at The Open University, said: “An important part of this project will be to evaluate the experience of members of the audience, by exploring the reactions of blind and sighted audience members as they navigate through the darkness. This evaluation will be used to inform the design of a new generation of ’user experience’ devices that transcends the notion of disabilities and abilities.”

The sense of touch is often taken for granted and overlooked by technology developers and designers. Touch is considered to hold less information than visual stimulus or sound but when used correctly it can create an information channel that is subtle, personal, intuitive and inclusive. As participants make a personal journey through the tactile installation, their ideas of perception and reality will be challenged and reformed by empowering their sense of touch.

Research and development performances will be held at Battersea Arts Centre from 14 – 19 June 2010. For further information or to book a place, please contact Alex Eisenberg, Email: info@thequestion.org.uk or Tel: (+) 44 (0)7710 005 267

Editor’s Notes
1. The Pervasive Interaction Lab, within The Open University’s Department of Computing, has its home in the innovative Jennie Lee building in Milton Keynes. This research Lab is used by an interdisciplinary team comprising computer scientists, cognitive scientists, designers and psychologists. Researchers using it are primarily concerned with the human aspects of ubiquitous computing, exploring the possible interactions between people, technologies and representations. A main focus is on augmenting and extending everyday, learning and work activities.

2. The Open University’s Centre for Research in Computing (CRC), which includes the Department of Computing, secured a place in the UK’s top 20 computing centres in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008). Results showed that 45% of CRC’s research is internationally excellent (3*) and a further 25% is world-leading (4*).

3. Extant, an Arts Council RFO, is the UK's only theatre company for visually impaired professionals led by artistic director Maria Oshodi, who was recently recognised as one of the 50 most talented 'Women to Watch' in the Cultural Leadership programme. The project, funded by the Technology Strategy Board, is a partnership with Adam Spiers, researcher into Humanoid Robotics and Control Engineering, The Open University’s Department of Computing, and BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) and aims to explore haptics' artistic and commercial applications.

4. Universities Week 2010 runs from Monday, June 14 to Sunday, June 20 and brings the UK’s Higher Education providers together in collective celebration of their impact on individuals, communities and the country.
The Week is being co-ordinated by Universities UK, the representative body for the executive heads of UK universities.

Together with Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland, it works to advance the interests of universities and to spread good practice throughout the higher education sector.

Further information, including a list of events scheduled for the Week, can be found at www.universitiesweek.org.uk

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