Wright State research studies how blind can feel fabric to experience works of art

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" in Barker code.

A Wright State University doctoral student is documenting how fabric allows the blind to experience works of art by feeling textures, and the preliminary findings are encouraging.

Stephanie Auld, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, has spent nearly two years analyzing how seven visually impaired university students and community residents react to the work of Sarah Barker of Wilmington.

“This project intersects with many important themes at Wright State, including diversity, disability and human-center innovation,” said John Flach, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. He is working with Auld on this research.

The study by Auld and Flach is directed at understanding the effectiveness of a B-code system developed by Barker. With the B-code, fabric textures represent colors. Barker has three primary and three secondary colors, with the firmness of the batting determining the darkness of the color. “For example,” explains Auld, “silks and satins are red, and if the background is soft cotton the color would be pink and if the batting was hard like cardboard it would be dark red.” Using the famous “Red Poppy” painting by Georgia O’Keefe, the subjects in the study memorized the texture color designations, which allowed them to “feel” the textures and thus visualize the patterns of the art.

The preliminary findings include:

  • 85 percent of the subjects (1) felt that there was a significant difference and improvement in their experience of the artwork with the B-code when compared to the verbal descriptions alone, (2) said it was “pretty easy” to adapt to the B-code and (3) would use the B-code pieces if they were readily available at an art museum.
  • 100 percent (1) had positive feelings about their B-code experience, (2) said their interaction with the B-code improved their appreciation of the art and (3) felt the B-code could benefit people with visual impairments.
  • 71 percent wanted to see another B-code piece.
  • 57 percent found that their interaction with the B-code helped them understand the role of color in art.

Flach said the research purpose is “to develop data to quantifiably distinguish and understand the quality of the visually impaired person’s experience with and appreciation for fine arts pieces with and without the support of the B-code. People with visual impairments or blindness experience many components of their lives in a manner different than many typically sighted people. However, sensory impairment need not be a limiting factor in the appreciation of arts. Ms. Barker has given much thought and effort into creating a means through which people with visual impairments or blindness can experience fine art more directly through the use of a tactile-sensory color representation.”

“We want to document through acceptable research principles how effective the B-code is, and the results so far are encouraging,” said Auld, who was attracted to the project because it represented such a departure from her field of engineering.  “Our goal is to prove the B-code works and evokes the same emotions in a blind person as someone with sight would experience,” said Auld, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering from Wright State. “We are also investigating how the interaction between the blind and their sighted companion is affected by the inclusion of B-code pieces in their art experience.” She directed video and audio recordings of the reaction of the seven individuals and is now completing the preliminary findings through statistical analysis.

Senior undergraduate Jordan Haggit in the Psychology Department is working on the video coding and analysis and will be presenting the findings in North Carolina at the North Carolina Conference on Visual Impairment and Blindness in April.

Flach hopes work by Barker can be displayed in an art exhibit later this year at Wright State. He said the work by Auld is partially funded through the National Science Foundation’s IGERT Program (Integrative Graduate Educational and Research Traineeship) that supports graduate students whose dissertation research aims to enhance learning opportunities for people with disabilities. The multidisciplinary approach is a collaboration between the College of Science and Mathematics and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. It involves Ph.D. programs in biomedical sciences, computer science, engineering and human factors and industrial/organizational psychology.

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NOTE: Flach, Auld and/or Barker can all be contacted through the Psychology Department Office at (937) 775-2391 or john.flach@wright.edu.

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