Art Accessibility for the Visually Impaired
Researchers: Callum Fowler, Mattia Spagnuolo, Xinyu Sun, Boyuan Yu
Through the lens of cultural democracy, our research project looks at art accessibility for the visually impaired. By exploring the current initiatives running at art institutions, contemporary artists creating accessible art, and current technologies focused on experiencing art, our aim is to contribute to art accessibility and raise awareness on current industry limitations. The culmination of this research is a software-based artefact that converts images to sound.
Our background theory is the idea that everyone should have access to all forms of art. In the introduction of his book, "Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose", James Bau Graves outlines the primary ideologies that surround the theory. Firstly, he notes that the access to different cultural artefacts greatly increases social/cultural cohesion in a multicultural society. He explains how opening up cultures to a wider community not only allows the general public to see new cultures, but also helps keep cultures alive in migrant communities. Graves also states the importance of artists interacting with different cultures and peoples. He talks about Andy Lomax’s idea of cultural “grey-out” (Graves, pg.7), which suggests a homogenising of culture within the US. While our research does not look at a specific culture, we are addressing the idea of cultural accessibility. The more people that can experience art within a society creates greater cultural bonds to individuals and the community around them.
Among all the initiatives we researched, Georgia Krantz’s “The Mind’s Eye” differs from the rest due to its multisensory nature. Rather than being a simple audio description, this workshop aims to convey emotion through the use of touch, smell, and sound. “The eye is just one of the channels through which sensory information is passed to the brain for processing” - says Krantz - “and with the right tools blind museum goers can be moved by visual art just like anyone else.”
A number of artists create art for the visually impaired, one of which is Niel Harbisson. Harbisson was born colourblind, however at the age of 21 he underwent surgery to fit a prosthetic device which allows him to hear colours. Over time Harbisson developed a sense of colour through sound and started integrating it into his artwork. Using what he came to call his “eyeborg”, he now translates audio into colour palettes and images into soundscapes. His collection includes celebrity sound portraits and visualised iconic speeches.
Our research also incorporates the current technology for people with visual disabilities. One key example is the BrainPort device by researcher and neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita. The technology takes advantage of a phenomenon called sensory substitution: our brains are capable of processing information independently from the organ that delivers it. Through a series of electrical impulses, the device stimulates the user’s tongue based on the image feed from a head-mounted camera. As the pixel information is mapped to the electrical stimulus intensity, the user is able to discern shapes from the video feed.
A more accessible technology we looked at is Caltech’s vOICe system. This device is comprised of a camera and software to translate images into sound. Similar to the BrainPort, vOICe makes use of sensory substitution which allows the user to visualise images through the use of sound. Caltech’s mapping system was found to be very intuitive as both trained and naive users were successful in understanding the image. This technology, along with Harbisson’s artistic practice, heavily inspired our artefact.
Our artefact is a software-based image processor which translates pictures into sound. Building from Caltech’s vOICe system, we attempted to extract the image’s mood based on its colour palette. A dark-blue image will be interpreted as “melancholic”, whereas a bright-red image will be considered as “vibrant”. Drawing from musicology, we have mapped “melancholic” to a minor scale, and “vibrant” to a major scale. The artefact offers two roles. Firstly, the system allows for people with visual impairments to experience the mood of visual artworks. Secondly, it gives all members of the public a chance to experience classic visual art through a new medium.
Through practical research we gained a better understanding of art accessibility and cultural democracy. At the moment, our artefact is a working prototype but through further revisions could easily be integrated in a gallery/museum setting. This would allow attendees to experience art in an unconventional way. The result would allow all members of society to share and explore artistic artefacts through innovative technology.
Below is our artefact demonstration, followed by the podcast of our research project.
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Red Roses: https://auspicgifts.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/50-Red-roses-bouquet.jpg
Red Dress: https://www.pictorem.com/144487/Sad%20woman%20in%20red.html
Mona Lisa - Leonardo Da Vinci: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mona_Lisa.jpg
Girl with the Pearl Earring - Johannes Vermeer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring
The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dalí: https://mymodernmet.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/the-persistence-of-memory-thumbnail.jpg
The Starry Night - Vincent Van Gogh: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Starry_Night
The Great Wave of Kanagawa - Hokusai: https://www.artsheaven.com/painting/artists/h/katsushika-hokusai/the-great-wave-of-kanagawa/