Sinead Nunes takes a look at the ARtSense Experiment at FACT

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

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!

More of Sinead’s writing can be found on her blog