Sunday, November 9, 2008

Making Aquariums and Museums More Accessible

Georgia Tech researchers are using music to aid the visually impaired in understanding the movements and displays featured in aquariums, zoos, museums and other dynamic facilities.

The research is using technology that tracks movements; in the case of an aquarium, it tracks the fish and interprets the movements into music and automated commentaries and narrations.

“We have three main components to this research,” said Bruce Walker, associate professor in the School of Psychology and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. “The first is tracking the animals, the second is interpreting it into music and the third is making a seamless and interactive human experience.”

According to Walker, there are several challenges associated with these research goals.

“It is challenging to automatically track animals when they go behind rocks or venture to other parts of the environment,” said Walker. “The music and narration also pose a challenge because we need to make sure that it is pleasant and interesting, but also communicates what’s happening in the exhibit. Our final challenge comes in trying to coordinate all of this technology into a seamless, real-time experience for the aquarium visitor.”

Walker is leading an interdisciplinary team to put the pieces of this research puzzle together. Gil Weinberg, director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, is focusing on the interpretation of movements into music. Tucker Balch, in the School of Interactive Computing, is leveraging his expertise on tracking the movements of animals. Researchers Carrie Bruce and Jon Sanford of the Georgia Tech Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) are working to evaluate the effectiveness of the resulting multimodal exhibit. The Tech team is also collaborating with the Atlanta Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI), and with staff at local zoos and aquariums.

Walker says that tracking moving objects and then communicating the dynamics to someone who cannot look at, or cannot see, the actual moving items has broad application in biological research, entertainment and sports, and tactical situations.

The technology is still in the research stage, but Walker and his colleagues are excited about the potential of opening up a whole world of new experiences for aquarium and zoo visitors who have vision impairments. Walker says, “There are lots of possibilities. We chose to begin by making exhibits more accessible to people with low vision. We’ll see where this leads after that.”

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