Engineer and robotocist Adam Spiers from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory brought his Haptic Lotus – a robotic flower like “a really dreadful Sat Nav” – to the Secret Garden Party. Here he tells us about the device, which uses infrared to help the sighted and the blind to move via touch, and “that weird parental feeling that I hope other engineers get when seeing a creation working in the field”.

Impossible-Aloe

“It’s like a flower you hold in your hand, but it’s a robot and it tells you where to go… in the dark”. This is what I found myself shouting at the progressively bemused couple I’d just met on Friday night on the Chair Swing ride. We were flying through the air at the time, which explains the shouting, though the conversation had started while we were all still stationary, with an innocent “so what brings you to the festival?”.

That was certainly one thing I learned quickly about the Secret Garden Party: everyone likes to chat. In fact, it was probably this friendliness that meant we (me, Navjit Sagoo and Peter Bennett, my two assistants for the day) could get away with blindfolding strangers before fitting them with headphones and sending them into a couple of darkened gazebos on a race to return with a silver capsule filled with sweets before their friends could.

Actually, what we were really doing was a practical demonstration of sensory augmentation, which is where the “typical” human sensory spectrum is modified, either to improve certain abilities, or to attempt to figure out something about how our minds and bodies work. In our Thursday-long installation / demonstration we gave our volunteers a handheld device, called the Haptic Lotus, to aid them on their blindfolded quest.

The Haptic Lotus. Photo courtesy of Braunarts.

Like a number of sensory substitution devices, the Lotus is a navigation aid. Quite often I explain it to people as akin to “a really dreadful Sat Nav”. It has no screen, no speakers and no satellite positioning. But then that’s the fun bit. You see, the Lotus really is a robotic flower that you hold in your hand, and by opening and closing its plastic petals it can communicate with whoever is holding it via their sense of touch, which is known in certain circles as “haptics”.

By combining this tactile communication with the ability of the Lotus to guide people to a specific part of the tent, we were essentially giving people a “new” sense. This sense was the ability to navigate a room by a feeling in the palm of their hand.

The basis of sensory substitution and augmentation stemmed from experiments in the 60s, which aimed to use electronic means to channel a blind person’s missing sense of vision into another sensory modality, such as sound or touch. However, it is hard to turn even a very simplified visual scene into a sound or tactile sensation. For such re-directed information to make sense, you have to spend hours or days training the participant. I guess people had more time in the 1960s: these days everyone is in a hurry. Thus the Lotus is a sensory augmentation device that has been designed to be incredibly intuitive, stripping navigation down to a bare minimum sense of “am I going the right way?”

Getting festival-goers to try it out at SGP was a real test of this. As Louis from Guerrilla Science had previously warned, “They’ll have really short attention spans”.

The general brief was that using the Lotus was like playing the ‘hot and cold’ game. “If you feel the petals opening in your hands then you are getting further away from the target, if the petals close then you are getting closer. If the flower completely closes its petals then you are really close and you should hear something in your headphones.” The “something” was an audio track created by Pete that only activated after the Lotus has guided them close to the target.

This is something else about the Lotus that is interesting: because of the minimal “opening / closing” interface it doesn’t tell you where to go next, it just tells you if the place you have walked to is closer or farther than the place you came from. If you stay still, it will just give you the same bit of information over and over again. This makes it an Enactive device, which means it relies on the interaction of humans with their environment. This interaction has been suggested as an important source of information with which the mind organises itself.

We let our participants know that there is nothing to trip over or bump into in the gazebo, and guided them to the entrance. As I walked them into the space, the Lotus opens into fully blossomed “you-are-far-away” pose, and I get that weird parental feeling that I hope other engineers get when seeing a creation working in the field.

“Ready… Go.”

A few experimental steps, a brief pause (or five), and… they’ve got it. Our high-spirited, fancy dressed (and slightly tipsy?) participants have just learned how to navigate by a light sense of pressure in their hands, rather than their sense of sight.

Generally, most people returned with containers in less than five minutes. We only had to “rescue” a few people, who were unbearably close to the containers but just kept missing them. Everyone “got” the idea of the Lotus though, and as participants ate their sweets hidden in the target capsules, we got to chat a bit about what it was all about.

The Lotus was originally designed as part of a large experimental installation called The Question, “an interactive theatre experience in the dark” – you can see a short film of The Question here and a full documentary about its creation here.

This idea was proposed to me some years ago by Maria Oshodi, the artistic director of Extant, the UK’s only visually impaired performing arts company. While the Lotus was intended to guide people around in the dark, to areas of interest in the production, it was also intended to be a tangible metaphor for the phenomenon of missing or augmented senses.

The Lotus can see infrared light, which it uses for navigation. The headphones we gave the participants also received sound transmissions through infrared light. Humans cannot see infrared light, or make sense of the encoded data so, to get around and make sense of The Question, audience members relied on the Lotus. What I really liked was that this was the same for blind and sighted people. So, for a short amount of time, we levelled the sensory playing field.

The Haptic Lotus and The Question were very ambitious things to work on, and most of the technical team almost went crazy doing so. At the Secret Garden Party though, it was possible to see the lighter side to it all and watch people playfully interacting with the device while they experienced something completely new. This isn’t something I usually get from the academic or arts crowd. For example, after initially explaining the concept to one guy, whose companion was dressed as a wizard, he simply exclaimed

“That sounds fucking awesome!”

Which is my favourite review yet.

Sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering.