How Virtual Reality is Bringing Art to the Blind

 

Appealing as it may seem, we all know the first rule when visiting an art museum: don’t touch the exhibits.

There’s good reason for the rule, and besides, there really is no reason for most of us to touch the work anyway. The Mona Lisa, the statue of David; they’re profound pieces of art that can be fully experienced simply by studying them with our eyes.

Not everyone has eyes through which to appreciate such fine art, however. When a blind person visits an art museum, the work can be described to them through audio cues or signs written in braille, but without the ability to employ the sense through which they can most easily identify the world around them, it remains mostly inaccessible.

That’s about to change.

In a collaboration between VR company NeuroDigital, Leontinka Foundation, an organisation for the blind and visually impaired, and the National Gallery of Prague, a revolutionary exhibition is offering blind art enthusiasts unprecedented access to these great works.

Touching Masterpieces uses haptic technology that provides users with kinaesthetic feedback as they touch replications of Michelangelo’s David, Venus de Milo and the bust of Nefertiti in a virtual space. Vibrations delivered through the haptic gloves mimic depth and texture, meaning users are getting as close to handling the physical art as possible.

This isn’t the first time an art museum has sort ways to accommodate the blind. In 2015, Spain’s Prado museum created copies of classic paintings that could be touched by blind patrons. The difference here is that the National Gallery of Prague and its collaborators have produced an exhibition as timeless as the art it features. There is no concern for wear or damage, nor the cost of creating copies. It does not require attendees to navigate a physical exhibition space. And, if the gallery chose to do so, the project could be shared with galleries across the world at the touch of a button.

Timeless Masterpieces is an extraordinary example of how Virtual Reality can provide solutions to a wide range of issues that have long impacted on impaired communities. Currently, there may only be three pieces available within the virtual exhibition, but it’s not hard to imagine that the number will grow fast as other galleries explore innovative ways to offer new opportunities to all patrons, and bring people together on a scale never seen before.

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