The eye-tracking glasses up close
«During the Fall 2013 semester, the Met and Parsons The New School for Design forged a new partnership, Met + Parsons Museum Accessibility Collaboration Workshop, to explore possibilities for using technology to improve the museum experience for visitors with disabilities. Our first featured project from that workshop, Eye on Art, focused on developing an eye-tracking system that would enhance the experiences of nonverbal and mobility-challenged art lovers. We recently sat down with the student participants to discuss their inspiration for this project, and the challenges they encountered in the process.»
Constance Von Rolleghem
Digital Underground: Describe your project to our Digital Underground audience.
Met + Parsons Student Participants: Eye on Art is a program that seeks to provide Museum visitors with a new way to share how they see and connect with art. We created an interactive eye-tracking tool that visualizes the art-viewing process by tracking the exact points at which users look at any given two-dimensional artwork. The project also includes a proposed framework that could be used as a Met Museum Accessibility program tool for art instructors and their participants. By bridging technology with access programming, it was our hope to make the art-viewing process more connective and exploratory, thus encouraging self-discovery and collective participation for all Museum visitors.
Digital Underground: How did you arrive at this idea for your project? What was your inspiration?
Met + Parsons: Our group was fascinated by the EyeWriter project developed by Free Art and Technology, OpenFrameworks, and Graffiti Research Lab. This device allows users to draw through eye movement—opening new, compelling ways for art to be used as an agent for empowerment and social change.
Digital Underground: Of all the advisors and industry partners, with whom did you work the most closely, and why?
Met + Parsons: Our team worked closely with Constance Von Rolleghem, who provided us with a unique perspective on how she plans her Museum visits with her daughter. Her experiences of talking to her daughter about art—both during and after their visits—gave us the opportunity to consider what our program could do to enhance those experiences.
Constance spoke about how important it is to talk to her daughter about their visit after leaving the Museum. When referring back to photo and images from their past visits, a story could then begin to be told. We wanted to consider what it meant to look back on one's Museum experiences, so we created a takeaway piece to the program that could further the storytelling aspect. Eye on Art users received a postcard-size "receipt" of their eye-tracking results from the artwork they viewed. On the backside of the receipt were specific facts that pertained to what the participant's eye was drawn to the most. Constance encouraged us to consider what this type of data could look like over a period of time, which opened up new possibilities for how Eye on Art could continue to grow within the Museum's setting.
Alba Somoza gives the eye-tracking glasses a try.
Digital Underground: What were some surprising discoveries you made along the way? Were there assumptions you had made that were challenged, or aspects of your design that didn’t work the way you expected? Were there parts of your plan you had to jettison because of time or practicality? What would you do differently if you were starting from scratch?
Met + Parsons: Each of us have such unique experiences with art, and because of this it was challenging to assume consistency in the way someone would interact with our prototype. It was also easy to make the assumption that not everyone would want to view art in this manner (placing something on your head and over your eye may not be ideal for all users), and we needed to find a way to facilitate around the needs of all user abilities in order to ensure inclusivity. This process was a rewarding one, as we were able to learn from the unique perspectives of our advisors, who provided us with the hard-pressing feedback we absolutely needed.
The biggest surprise occurred when we began user testing with our advisors. In earlier stages of the project, we had users verbally speak about what they were seeing and observing in a given artwork we had on display. As one member of our group facilitated this conversation, another member would be simultaneously hand-drawing an interpretative line that "tracked" what the user was seeing. We were pleased when we saw users talk about their tracking sheets, compare results, and even assist one another in better understanding the artwork with their receipts.
Senior Museum Educator Rebecca McGinnis interacts with a painting using an early prototype of the eye tracker.
Digital Underground: If you had another semester to continue working on the project, what would you continue to do?
Met + Parsons: Our initial eye-tracking prototype needed a lot of trial and error, research, and time (a huge thanks to group member Jackie for making this possible). If we had another semester, we could potentially find the resources to continually enhance our prototype in order to make the device more accessible and wearable by a broader range of individuals. As far as the Eye on Art program itself, having the opportunity to continually test interactivity levels would only enhance our ability to refine the program framework to ensure it could become a sustainable resource for the Met.
The eye-tracking software in action
Digital Underground: How has this workshop affected the way you think about accessibility and the needs and expectations of people with disabilities?
Met + Parsons: The Museum Accessibility Workshop has opened up an opportunity to deeply think about how design may play a role in connecting diverse users in new and engaging ways. By incorporating a more inclusive approach in connecting individuals with disabilities to specific learning outcomes makes the design process that much more meaningful. To us, design and accessibility open new challenges in considering responsible and universal design approaches that we now wish to integrate in all of our future design work.
A mock-up of the eye-tracking "receipt"
Digital Underground: How has this workshop affected how you think about museums?
Met + Parsons: We've always known museums to provide space for endless possibilities, which is why it has been such a privilege to better understand how museums play such a critical role in facilitating meaningful experiences for all visitors, regardless of abilities. We don't walk through museum spaces the same way we used to; we are now very conscious about how we move through each gallery space in relation to fellow visitors around us.
Digital Underground: What else would you like to tell us about your experience in the workshop?
Met + Parsons: Design as a mode of facilitating social change has always been a passion of ours, but the Museum Accessibility Workshop has allowed us to really tackle challenges that have only strengthened our skill set and provided new ways of seeing through others' eyes—quite literally! Thank you to all those, including Katherine, Don, and Rebecca, who made this incredible experience possible.
Don Undeen testing a prototype with Jackie Simon
Eye on Art photo gallery
Eye on Art video on Vimeo
Eye on Art final presentation (PDF)
Digital Underground: Posts related to the Met + Parsons Museum Accessibility Collaboration Workshop