Don’t Be Afraid to Touch The Priceless Artifacts

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Manchester Museum exteriorIt’s hard to really get to know an object without physically handling it. Yet not touching the ancient artifacts on display in museums is deeply ingrained in our thinking. The latest advances in museum technology allow us to both see and “feel” antiquities. The word feel is in quotes because you still aren’t handling the actual object. Instead, you’re using haptic technology to “handle” a 3D scan of the object in a virtual environment. A recent announcement from the Manchester Museum in the UK got us thinking about the evolution of this important technology.

Haptic technology has been around for a decade. Recently it has advanced to the point where users can experience subtle textures. Using an advanced 3D laser scanner, the scanned object is displayed on a screen and handled virtually by a user through a very sensitive robotic control. The force feedback essentially tricks you into thinking you’re feeling a real object.3D artifacts at the Manchester MuseumManchester Museum has set up a haptic console for its guests to use. They also created a portable version of the device that can be used anywhere. Manchester is starting off slowly, having scanned just a few objects such as bowls and a small figurine from its Egyptology collection. They are hoping to add many more objects, including a full-scale mummy.

Manchester Museum isn’t the first institution to make use of haptic technology in exhibits. The Museum of Pure Form allows users to “handle” and interact with sculptures and architectural features through larger scale virtual reality devices. It’s a traveling museum that is currently stationed at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Pisa, adjacent to the leaning tower. By virtually handling sculptures, users get a feel for what it was like for the artist to work the material into its current form. In fact, with the right equipment, you can access and handle virtual sculptures through their website.Exterior view of the Manchester MuseumIn 2007, the Belgian firm De Pinxi created an Immersive Theater Demonstrator, a haptic-enabled interface allowing users to virtually explore Russia’s archeological past. The Demonstrator lets users manipulate tools on archeological digs to uncover relics that can also be examined further.

The Haptic Museum at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, has been allowing users to handle works of art for years using its two main haptic devices. The Phantom is a desktop device that provides force feedback to a user’s fingertip, while the CyberGrasp is a whole-hand glove users wear in order to explore art objects like a vase or small bronze figure.Manchester Museum is using haptic technologyTouch & Discover Systems developed Probos, the system being used in the Manchester Museum. It was first unveiled at the 2012 Museums’ Association Conference in Edinburgh. With portable versions of the system, the world’s most precious ancient objects could soon be making appearances at schools and in communities everywhere.

As a trend in museum technology, the potential for haptic devices is exciting. Touch screens and interactive exhibits are a great way to engage guests.  But technologies that allow visitors to really interact with rare and ancient items will revitalize the museum concept and keep future generations flocking to these important places.Haptic technology at the Manchester Museum

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