Digital technologies hold huge potential for disabled artists, says Dr Chris Creed, but no studies to date have investigated their impact on practice for physically impaired visual artists. Here, he explains how his research is exploring the potential of these novel technologies.

Tell us about yourself
I work in the digital humanities hub at the University of Birmingham where we broadly explore the use of innovative digital technologies within a cultural context.

I initially moved to Birmingham in 2004 to start a PhD and have now been living and working in the city for 11 years. I have a technical background and previously worked in the School of Computer Science for around six years – although I’ve never really considered myself to be a ‘hard-core’ computer scientist. I’ve always been more interested in the ‘human’ side of computing and creating systems with a strong emphasis on user-centred design principles.

Since joining the digital humanities hub in 2012 I’ve worked on a wide range of collaborative projects with cultural organisations and SMEs. These projects include (among others) the design and development of large multi-touch tables, exploring interactive digital projections in public spaces, prototyping and evaluating live augmented dance experiences, and examining the potential of augmented reality in art galleries.

The variety of these projects and the opportunity to work closely with cultural partners (eg Birmingham Museums Trust, Ironbridge Gorge, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The Hive in Worcester and the Library of Birmingham) has been hugely enjoyable and has helped inform the research I’m currently leading on.

What is your area of research?
My core research interest is around accessibility and assistive technology with a particular emphasis on exploring how novel technologies can be used to enhance interactive experiences for disabled people.

This is an area I’ve increasingly started to focus on over the past few years. It started through an AHRC CATH funded project (LEAP) that investigated how large multi-touch tables can be made more accessible for wheelchair users (via mid-air gesturing). This work led to further projects and collaborations with other academics, charities, special needs colleges, and accessibility organisations.

In particular, I’m currently the principal investigator on the AHRC funded D2ART project that is investigating how innovative technologies (eg eye gaze tracking, mid-air gesturing, motion tracking, etc.) can be used to support and transform the practice of physically impaired visual artists. This is a collaborative project with DASH (Disability Arts Shropshire) and our advisory panel which includes Scope’s Beaumont College, Arts Council England, University of Chicago at Illinois, National Star College, and the Birmingham School of Art (Birmingham City University).

I’ve also been involved in other accessibility projects such as wearable technology for deaf audiences in theatre performances, creating digital art via eye tracking, and interactive kiosk accessibility in public spaces for blind and partially sighted users.

What is the importance of your research?
The research we’re conducting on the D2ART project is essential as artists with physical impairments have great difficulty in producing their art work and typically have to deal with a wide range of significant issues. For instance, they often have to use instruments such as head wands, mouth-sticks, or specially designed grips for holding brushes – which can lead to further health complications (eg damage to teeth, neck stiffness, etc.).

Personal assistants are also crucial in helping artists in many aspects of producing their work such as setting up a canvas, moving materials, preparing paints, and many other tasks. This reliance on others and general lack of independence can be particularly frustrating for disabled artists and can disrupt their creative process.

Digital technologies can help address many of these issues and several innovative and affordable devices have recently been released that have the potential to transform how people interact with computing systems. These technologies include devices such as the Leap Motion, Microsoft Kinect v2, Tobii EyeX, Eye Tribe, and Touch+ which can all track body movements in real time thus enabling people to interact with systems in new ways. These types of technologies hold huge potential for disabled artists, but no studies to date have explored their impact on practice for physically impaired visual artists.