Sharing the Joy of Art

Undergraduate researcher creates device to give individuals who are visually impaired a more personal experience of art

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What if a device could help the blind and visually impaired share in the joy of art? That was the question posed by Victoria Hribar, a senior biomedical engineering and mathematical sciences major at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“A haptic art display is designed to give information about a piece of art through the sense of touch to blind and visually impaired users,” said Hribar. “Most forms of art are currently inaccessible for this population. Our device was designed to give those with visual impairments the same sense of learning and enjoyment most people get from pieces of art.”

Hribar has spent the past 11 months participating in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). With guidance from her mentor, Dianne Pawluk, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Hribar was able to continue her research on haptic art displays, which she started in May 2010 with the support of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education and Research Program.

Hribar’s haptic art display is comprised of two major components, a thermal element and a tactile element, which will help users understand information about the texture, color, contrast and, in a sense, the emotional content of the painting. Hribar recognizes that these concepts in art are lost when it comes to the visually impaired and blind.

“Our goal was to give blind users a more personal experience with artwork so they could form their own interpretations and opinions,” said Hribar.

The UROP experience not only has helped Hribar advance her research project, but also has given her the opportunity to get hands-on experience that she might otherwise not receive in the classroom.  She recognizes that while the lab components and assigned work in her classes are essential to understanding the material, the experience within the UROP has given her a deeper understanding of what she has previously learned.

“I really think for engineering and the sciences, it’s important to gain hands-on exposure,” said Hribar. “Working independently on the project required me to pull information from different classes I had taken, which helped me to understand the material on a deeper level.”

Pawluk recognizes the potential benefits for the blind and visually impaired of the haptic art displays that Hribar would like to create.

“A friend has told me that when a few individuals who are blind had the opportunity to touch sculptures and experience them for themselves, they were very emotional and cried with happiness,” said Pawluk. “We hope to do the same thing by providing access to the style and emotional content of paintings.”

Because of her participation in the UROP program, Victoria has been selected to participate in the Posters on the Hill program at Capitol Hill this year. The Posters on the Hill program recognizes the achievements of 75 undergraduate students from around the country each year and allows them to present their work to members of Congress, congressional staff members, federal government officials and others.