Do we know what we are missing? exploring the real value and potential of virtual touch in museum display

Angela Geary

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Highly precise 3D data capture capabilities, visualisation techniques and advanced virtual interactive technologies offer us the possibility of replicating our experience of museum artefacts. Haptic (touch interactive) interfaces can allow us to touch the untouchable – precious and fragile objects from paintings to fossils can be simulated haptically in form, mass and surface. Visual simulation can be highly authentic to an original artefact – but there is nothing quite like touching something to really convince us and add impact to our encounter – whether real or simulated. Despite advances in technology and computing power, haptics remains an unresolved field of computer interaction. Haptic devices are typically encumbering, restrictive or awkward physical devices. This is, in part, simply due to the practical difficulties in engaging our bodies and limbs in haptic interaction in naturalistic and perceptually comfortable ways. Multi-utility haptic systems do a reasonable job of simulating many ‘grasp and poke’ types of interactions with one or two hands, however, it is difficult to imagine that a ‘universal’ haptic system can be developed in the scope of conventional engineering and interaction science as we know it. In the context of museum collections, the physical complexity of the artefacts and materials involved brings considerable challenges. Beyond weight and dimensions, including 3D capture in this, we do not gather specific haptic data in the process of documenting museum artefacts. Information such as average forces involved in shearing, tearing and compressing materials; surface friction against moving touch; elastic or plastic modulus and so on, are valuable in this context. As artefacts become aged, damaged or lost, knowledge of these intrinsic qualities preserved alongside colour and form would facilitate highly authentic simulation or facsimile production. The materiality of experiencing cultural heritage is undeniable and a poor analogue may be worse than none at all – given the rich capability of our own imaginations. Defining a future role and framework for applying multi-sensory and haptic interaction in the museum context may be more about what it can add, rather than replace, in our encounters with artefacts. Low-tech., as well as high-tech., solutions to enhancing our understanding of the material experience of artefacts require exploration as we consider what exactly we are missing when we may look at, but not touch, an artefact.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sept 2009
EventWhat’s the Damage? Physical encounters: increased benefit or increased risk? - London
Duration: 23 Sept 2009 → …


ConferenceWhat’s the Damage? Physical encounters: increased benefit or increased risk?
Period23/09/09 → …


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