If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to elicit a sharp intake of breath by a museum curator or conservator, it’s the idea of having visitors handle artifacts. We’re used to seeing objects in museums either out of reach and from a distance or safely ensconced in cases. It’s an unfortunate necessity, this barrier between the public and the artifact. Really, artifacts would be better off if nobody ever handled them at all, even with cotton gloves and extreme care. Every bit of handling represents a risk to artifact integrity.
Trouble is, most physical objects are best understood through handling and touching, clearly something the general public will never be able to do with museum artifacts. Some interesting new haptic technology is emerging though, that may give museums a new way to allow visitors and scholars to “see” artifacts with their sense of touch, promoting greater appreciation of them, even when the artifact is on the other side of the world.
Haptics in this context may be loosely defined as sensory feedback technologies that can stimulate a user’s sense of touch to create the sensation of touching a physical thing virtually. There are examples of controls for video games that employ force feedback in various ways to enhance the reality of game play, but until recently it wasn’t possible to reproduce subtler textures and feel digitally. It appears that we are on the cusp of commercially viable haptic touch screens that will allow us to feel not only shapes but textures as well. This seems like a significant step forward to me. Here’s a few ways that museums and others may benefit from these new developments:
It would be a welcome change to have “touch” screens that actually can stimulate our sense of touch. Current touch screens allow us to touch them, but feed nothing back to us in the tactile sense. For me, many of the frustrations with touch devices would fall away with a well-implemented haptic screen. Elusive touch targets could provide textural confirmation to searching fingers. Typing on a touch device would be fundamentally altered when the keys could actually be detected by touch. Perhaps most importantly, haptic screens have huge implications for the accessibility of touch computing for the visually impaired. It would be ground-breaking for persons with visual impairments to be able to feel what others can see on the screen. It all adds up to a huge user experience win.
It’s hard to beat our sense of touch for truly understanding objects. Imagine having the real object in front of you, safely protected by a case, but being able to virtually feel its surface using a haptic screen. The ability to feel the texture and firmness of a delicate quillwork basket, or the decorative etching on the blade of a sword would be quite unexpected and delightful — currently experiences denied to visitors due to conservation concerns. This ability would be all the more exciting for visually impaired persons, opening up a whole new world of possibilities in their experience of museums.
I can imagine that the interpretation of maps too could literally take on new dimensions, allowing visitors to feel the contours of places, deepening understanding of context. Flat maps, even with contour lines, cannot really communicate terrain to any but the most experienced map reader. The addition of easily comprehensible elevation modelling would be interesting for most visitors, and revolutionary for the visually impaired.
The ability to virtually handle objects at a distance would be ground-breaking for scholarly research. Of course nothing can substitute for having the object in one’s hands, but when that’s not possible due to budgets, distance or artifact fragility, haptics may be a lot better than nothing. Researchers studying subjects where collections are widely scattered throughout the world may never get personal experience with some key artifacts due to limited travel budgets. Haptic technologies may be a way to fill the wide gap between viewing photos or video and personal inspection.
I’m sure that the speculations above are only scratching the surface of what may soon be possible for museums using haptic technologies. I look forward to learning and seeing more about the possibilities as these new developments become commercially viable and more widely available.
What could your museum do with haptic technology?
If you could touch any artifact in the world, what would it be?
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