Museum Visitors Touch History
Josh O'Dell
January 3, 2014

Museum Visitors Touch History

Manchester Museum encourages, rather than discourages, the touching of 3D versions of artifacts, thanks to the use of virtual reality and advanced visualization technology.

The scene goes like this: Under the museum's high-vaulted ceilings, scores of children clamor to stare a Tyrannosaurus rex in the mouth. They gaze up at the Brontosaurus' long tail. They study the sharp tips of ancient arrowheads, imagining them slicing through the air. And at some point, one of these field trippers will cautiously reach out his or her hand to touch a Velociraptor talon, or a vase, or an ancient painting. At this, a chaperone will reprimand the offender and reference a sign that simply states "Do Not Touch." Bear in mind, the chaperone probably wants to touch the artifact as well, but doesn't. The articles are fragile.

How can we give museum visitors the physical experience they crave? Additionally, what about visually impaired visitors for whom, without touch, the museum may be no different than reading from a book? Those questions were at the tip of Christopher Dean's mind when he and his company, Touch & Discover Systems, developed the Probos system for the UK's Manchester Museum. Along with software by Virtalis, a world-leading virtual-reality and advanced visualization company, Probos uses the Geomagic Touch haptic device from 3D Systems to provide tactile (touch) and kinesthetic (motion) feedback to museum visitors. Put simply: Visitors can touch digital three-dimensional versions of the amazing artifacts that are typically stuck behind thick glass and dusty velvet ropes. The museum, in turn, can enliven the stories behind the artifacts that are often extremely fragile.

Imagine only hearing about the painstaking process and craftsmanship of an ancient vase. Now, what if you could touch the engravings and feel the hand-worked shape? This is how you form a connection; this process of touch and discover is exactly what you can now do, thanks to the work done with Probos. Museum visitors simply move a handheld stylus to feel the contours, textures, and weight of artifacts that date as far back as 4000 BC. Probos deepens the experience by providing important audio elements, so visitors can hear the dull hum of a broken ceramic versus the harmonic ring produced by a high-fired ceramic.

Considering this new kind of museum experience, people around the world are taking note. In fact, the Manchester Museum was a runner-up for the 2013 Museum and Heritage Innovations Award.

Probos is the first device of its kind: a smooth combination of form and function. Dean, a user of Geomagic Touch haptic devices (formerly known as the Sensable Phantom) and Geomagic Freeform 3D modeling software for over a decade, conceived of Probos as a universal haptic interface that the public feels confident using. While it offers a robust, universal touch-based environment, the haptic components inside are shielded by an ergonomic design and user-friendly setup. Thus, the public, researcher, or trainee is not distracted by technical components. Rather, the person can enjoy a sensational 3D experience right from the start. At the Manchester Museum, the staff sees it being used by people from all walks of life and all ages. Additionally, the Probos can be used as a wider platform to showcase haptic research or new products.

It's the next best thing to actually handling the objects and a game changer in terms of feeling a connection to the past, especially for visually impaired museum visitors. In fact, Dean and Samantha Sportun, senior conservator and collections care manager at the museum, enlisted a focus group from Henshaws Society for Blind People to help them evaluate early versions of the Probos interface and assist in choosing the collection of ancient pottery within it. Developers then used Geomagic Studio to produce highly accurate surface models of each artifact based on laser scanner data. These surface models became the basis for the virtual objects that those school children can finally touch within Probos.

While Probos does not replace the experience of handling an actual object, it allows us to learn intuitively. But we're just scraping the surface. Interactive developers are dreaming up more ways to use haptics and 3D to create a truly meaningful experience and to enhance the general public's appreciation of the beaten paths that led us to where we are now.

Josh O'Dell is a content creator for 3D Systems Geomagic, whose scanning and design software solutions are used to capture and model 3D content from physical objects, organically sculpt complex shapes, and prepare products for manufacturing.