Maria Oshodi is the Artistic Director and CEO at Extant, Britain’s only performing arts company of visually impaired people. Working alongside technology company Haunted Pliers and Open University, Extant’s R&D Fund project investigates how technology can enable new cultural experiences for the blind and visually impaired.
Native: You are currently developing a new installation, based on the novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott. How would you describe this project?
Maria Oshodi: In Flatland, we combine artistic, technological and research approaches to investigate haptics and performance. How can blind and visually impaired people enjoy a trip to a theatre or museum without having to rely on sighted people to describe what there is to be seen? Going one step further, how can cultural experiences be created so that there is no difference between the experiences of the blind and sighted? To explore these questions, we are creating an experience where visitors use other senses to engage with what is there.
Where did the idea come from?
I first met Adam Spiers (Ad) of Haunted Pliers in 2006 at the Cybernetics Department of Reading University. I was interested in moving the experience of theatre away from the ‘spectacle’ usually mediated through the sense of sight and re-locating it more in the bodily experience of an audience. Ad was working on a navigation device called the Haptic Torch at the time and, after he demonstrated it, we both saw potential for collaboration.
Janet Van Der Linden of the Open University first met Ad while he was giving a talk on his work at Sussex University in 2009. As a result, the Pervasive Interaction Lab, which is part of the Computing Department at the Open University, also became interested in the proposed collaboration. In 2010 Open University joined the team on an Extant led pilot, funded by the TSB, and the Haptic Lotus prototype was developed which formed part of a non-visual scratch theatre installation ‘The Question’ in 2010.
Haptic (adj): Relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.
You will be using a personal haptic navigation device to guide people through the performance space. Can you explain how this device will work?
The audience of the Flatland pilot will each be given a portable haptic device that will assist their navigation of the environment via novel touch based sensations. The particular nature of the sensation delivered by the device is still under development with a number of options currently being prototyped and tested by Ad, who is currently based in the Engineering department of Yale University. This is an extension of our first navigation device, the Haptic Lotus.
The new haptic device will use the location of audience members inside the space, in a similar way to GPS, to provide navigational cues. Unlike GPS, indoor localisation is still experimental and Ad is also investigating methods of enabling and exploiting current technology in order to open up exciting possibilities for dramatic and targeted user interaction.
This personalised haptic navigation experience will hopefully be combined with other ubiquitous technologies in the environment for a unique and immersive experience.
How do you anticipate that audiences will respond to this installation?
By swapping the usual visual cues for multi-sensory ones, the storyline will be uniquely experienced through each participant’s body. We will offer a performance where audiences, whether visually impaired or sighted have the same experience. We will also explore how new technologies can play with the audience’s engagement with their own senses, the environment and how stories are told.
We know from The Question that audiences were challenged, intrigued, excited and inspired by the beginnings of our work in this field. We anticipate even more of this kind of reaction as this project funded now by the R&D Fund, takes the meaning of digital and broadens it to include other sensory modalities other than vision.
How do you feel that this project will influence arts and cultural organisations when devising performances for the blind?
Overall, the focus of this project is on non-visual technologies that offer new ways for people whether visually impaired or sighted to experience art and culture, not just in the theatre and other live performance spaces, but in galleries, museums and beyond. This project hopes to offer arts and cultural organisations a radical new approach to widening engagement and their uses of digital technology.
We will share the impact from our research, offer guidelines on use of the technology and demonstrate the technology at a widely publicized end of project seminar event in April 2015, to which we will invite the arts, museums, galleries, heritage and technology sectors.
Samuel Fry is the editor of Create Hub, an online magazine about innovation, technology & the arts.