ARtSense Experiment @ FACT, Liverpool

ARtSense is a Europe-wide arts research group, striving to be at the forefront of adaptive augmented reality and bio-sensing technology in a museum setting. FACT, along with Paris’ Musée des Artes et Metiers, and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid are working together with five European research institutes including LJMU to develop these new wearable technologies which aim to alter and personalise the individual’s exhibition experience.

After stumbling across a call-out on FACT’s website for volunteers for the research project, I eagerly signed up and anticipated my involvement. On Tuesday 14th August, I was invited to FACT early in the morning to take part in the mysterious experiment: my instructions were to have no breakfast, no tea or coffee and not to wear glasses or make up, which left me wondering what my role would entail.

I was met by Research and Innovation Manager Roger McKinley, who was really helpful and introduced me to the team, including Clara Casian, with whom I had been exchanging emails. The team were all lovely and really enthusiastic about their research, which was infectious and woke me up, ready to plunge into the world of bio-sensing technology.

First of all I was strapped up with devices to monitor my heart rate and skin conductivity, and given a chance to get used to wearing the equipment, all of which was quite comfortable. After a brief initiation, I was introduced to further equipment, including eye-tracking cameras and wireless headphones. All of this felt a little strange and surreal, but I quickly became comfortable as I was talked through the process.

For the main experiment, my focus was drawn to the infamous ‘Signature Pillar’ in FACT’s reception area, which is adorned with the autographs of famous directors including Ken Loach and artists such as Bill Drummond. I have to be honest, on my weekly visits to FACT I barely notice the pillar, but throughout this experience, I was drawn to and immersed by the signatures, even more so when accompanied by the tailored audio description.

The following day, I was invited to return for a group discussion concerning the outcome of the experiment. The Manifest.AR meeting involved a presentation regarding their research, followed by a Q&A session. It was fascinating to discover how the experiment progressed, and how each volunteer had such different experiences: I had been part of a test-group who were able (unknowingly) to trigger the audio-description on the headphones by staring at a specific signature. Other people had been unable (again, unknown to them) to do this, and were granted a linear audio track. What was fascinating to learn, was that each of us had actively spent our time trying to  figure this system out during the experiment, and some of us even managed to guess what ARtSense were trying to investigate.

The research is in its infancy, but ultimately aims to provide an enhanced, personalised viewing experience within a gallery setting that is totally tailored to our personal interests. For  example, if the eye lingers on one exhibit for a prolonged length of time, this will trigger a commentary, as the equipment senses we are interested in this artefact via our heart rate and skin conductivity. All this sounds impressive, but some issues were raised concerning whether this is a practical advancement in the gallery experience – some argued that museum trips are social events, and that we don’t want to feel ‘plugged in’ whilst wandering through an exhibition, whilst others found the idea of ‘fixation’-triggered commentary confusing (for instance, if one’s gaze travelled quickly, would this chop up the audio and create an indecipherable mess?).

I must admit that wearing so much equipment is an isolating experience, however, in the right exhibition environment, this could be a huge compliment to the artwork on offer, as well as an interesting and new way to experience art. The general consensus was that this could work well on a small scale (in galleries such as FACT), but in a fine art museum, with more exhibits and endless history attached to the work, the content would be harder to manipulate to an individuals preferences.

Another aspect of the experiment was to encourage the galleries involved to put to use latent content that they have recorded, in new and innovative ways. FACT currently has a vast database of information on various artists, and this bio-sensing audio description technology is just one way that it can be implemented into a visitor’s exhibition experience.

Towards the end, one of the researchers also gave the group a sneak-peek into a new project that the ARtSense team will be working on, set to be unveiled in June 2013: a programme called Layers, a ‘bodyblogging’ device which logs one’s location and state of health/contentment in that area. This is set to be developed into an ever-changing live GPS signal, which I discovered upon questioning, could ultimately be integrated into video games such as Call of Duty.

All of these developments are amazing, in that they create a connection between science and art – two discourses usually so disparate – but here working together to creatively produce new and exciting technological advancements, and I am so proud to have been a part of this early stage of development.

For anyone who may be interested, the second leg of the experiment will be taking place at FACT in November, and I for one will be signing up!

This review was written for

About teafortwotalk

Freelance writer @Pickwickmag @Corridor8 @Biennial / Editor @artinliverpool. Available for writing and copyediting.
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