DisArt is a multi-venue Disability Arts Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that highlights exhibits of Disability Artists from around the world. One such venue, The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), sought a partner to help reimagine the museum and art-viewing experience with an iOS application, to create a compelling digital experience that integrates with the physical art display. This application would serve to demonstrate best practices for presenting artwork to a community and an audience of varying abilities.
When we heard the DisArt Festival was coming to Grand Rapids, we were excited at the opportunity to assist. As designers and technologists, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve people’s experiences by leveraging technology. For people with special needs, the DisArt Festival draws a heightened attention to those experiences. We saw the opportunity to contribute to the DisArt Festival with an accessible mobile app.
According to Christian Saylor, Creative Director at Universal Mind, “We set out to create an experience that was simple and intuitive for any user attending DisArt, and also something that combined the digital and physical in an engaging way. We’re excited that we could give back to the community in a way that uses technology to cater to people’s unique needs”
We got to work designing, developing and deploying an iOS-based, iBeacon, and mobile experience. We designed the application, Access UICA, with five different users in mind, guests living with visual, mobility, hearing, and cognitive impairments, as well as able-bodied users. The application functions as a way-finding tool as well as an exhibition guide, responding to iBeacons located throughout the exhibit. The iBeacon technology guides guests of the exhibition through each venue and enables an iPhone or iPad to perform actions when in close proximity. Artists faces change opacity based on how close they are to the user; the nearest is dark on the app, and the more transparent the farther away the user is from the art piece. The guest experience is enhanced with audio guides, artist biographies, an interactive map, and details about the works on view, all designed with differently-abled users in mind. Guests can customize their own experience based on their ability and needs.
Throughout the process, we experimented with several context scenarios in order to understand how to serve a diverse audience. As a result, we included some unique features such as a screen reader, large text and easy touch navigation, that allows people to experience content relevant to the space they’re in physically, in the content mode that works best for the individual. In one instance, we tested the application on a user with muscular dystrophy. We found that because of his lack of muscle tone, it was easier for him to swipe on the phone, not touch. To accommodate, we enabled swiping functionality. For users that might be vision impaired, we built the app with iPhone’s accessibility features in mind, enabling zoom, changing text size, inverting colors, and a voiceover that speaks the items on the screen.
Through the use of iBeacons, we were able to bring relevant artist content to each person, as they move through the show. By delivering relevant, contextual information to a user at an appropriate time, we can change the way people consume content. This not only impacts a museum experience, but highlights the idea of contextual relevancy for all interactions with technology. We’re really just scratching the surface of how the internet of things (IoT) will help to simplify and focus experiences for us.
The application was an astounding success. It provides accessible information about the works included in the DisArt Festival, in use at three venues, UICA, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the Fed Galleries at Kendall College of Art and dEsign. The iBeacon technology has never before been used in a museum setting of UICA’s caliber. “This application and experience will provide a new level of accessibility and equality to UICA patrons and citizens of Grand Rapids,” remarked Miranda Krajniak, Executive Director of UICA. “With the introduction of this app, UICA will be on the cutting edge of technology-driven accessibility and education.”
In the future, UICA plans to continue to use the app for disability accessibility as well as dual language exhibitions, providing historical context, or mini talks from community members, professors, and art experts on drawing/painting techniques used in creating artwork.