Imagine not being able to see what The Very Hungry Caterpillar looks like, or The Gruffalo's purple prickles. Imagine not understanding what the clouds, a rainbow or the starry sky at night look like and why they inspire children's drawings, poems and reading as well as our everyday language and visual references. This is the case for thousands of blind and partially sighted children across the UK.
Now imagine that the rapidly developing world of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence is taking even more visual opportunities away from blind children. From gaming at home to classroom settings, VR is becoming more financially accessible and at Living Paintings we are excited about harnessing its potential so that blind and partially sighted children can embrace the future on an equal footing with their sighted peers.
30 years of bringing pictures to blind people
At Living Paintings we answer this need by creating Touch to See books that are used by blind and partially sighted children to understand the visual world around them. An award-winning charity, our unique books include raised images and immersive audio recordings which are often voiced by professional actors and personalities. This combination of touch and sound makes up for the missing sense of sight and helps blind and partially sighted people to understand the world around them.
Our unique Touch to See books reach 15,500 beneficiaries across the UK through our free postal library service; 8,000 of them are children. We are the only organisation to do what we do and we have an unmatched depth of knowledge and experience in interpreting images for those who cannot see. So at Living Paintings, we already know how to bring pictures to life for blind children. Now we want to ensure we future-proof our service and provide access to pictures using VR for future generations.
Teddy enjoys the Touch to See adapted version of The Smeds and The Smoos by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, co-published on the same day as the mainstream version hit UK bookshelves on 6 September 2019.
Virtual Reality - the future of touch and sound
We are fascinated to explore how virtual reality technology could be used in delivering our Touch to See experience and applied to our Touch to See resources. This ambitious and exciting new project could be truly revolutionary and change the way that blind and partially sighted people experience the visual world of pictures.
As the availability and cost of VR technology begins to become more accessible, we at Living Paintings want to harness this the huge potential that we perceive there is, to make a ground-breaking step in providing unmatched access to visual imagery for blind and partially sighted people. We also believe that there is the possibility that what we develop will be useful to a wider, sighted audience.
VR experiences currently revolve around the delivery of exciting and often fast-moving images - no blind child can see these. We propose to replace the 'looking' with touch and sound to create a new immersive sensory experience. The central question to be answered will be: How do we use virtual reality technology to deliver a touch and sound experience for blind children?
Our project will focus on:
- Creating an immersive sensory experience, using the sense of touch (data gloves) and sense of hearing (audio description).
- Putting pictures ‘into the hands’ not only of blind and partially sighted children – our specialist area – but also potentially unlocking access to mainstream audiences so they can ‘feel’ a marble statue or an ancient clay pot, a dinosaur’s scales or sense a shoal of fish.
- Exploring the potential of ‘remote access’ to such resources – rather than visiting a physical place – a museum or exhibition - or the International Space Station... or the Amazon Rainforest - to bring such resources to isolated and remote groups of blind and partially sighted children who do not or could not potentially attend a fixed exhibition.
- Challenging the concept of ‘Do not Touch’ particularly for children - which pervades everyday life - from shop displays, artefacts in museums, breakables etc. - but which blind children need to do, to be able to identify objects.
- Exploring the wider application of ‘Touch to See’ (multi-media) experiences.
To further these aims and deliver such an exciting VR project, we are seeking technical advice through partnerships with those involved in Virtual Reality. We are also seeking financial support from the Aviva Community Fund and Aviva employees to shape a pilot programme and test it for full expansion.
We are already in consultation with Sky Arts and Factory42's personnel, networks and technological knowhow to explore the current VR environment and potential suitability for a pilot project. We will also seek:
- Funding as necessary, from organisations like Aviva Community Fund interested in equal access to opportunities for remote and vulnerable children.
- Expertise from other partners such as the Natural History Museum, which held a sell-out VR exhibition in 2018 with Sir David Attenborough.
- Input from our child library members to inform us about developing their VR experiences with Living Paintings. As part of the project, we aim to develop and deliver an event consulting with groups of our blind and partially sighted beneficiaries, leading with children and young people and which will inform the next steps into this exciting unexplored territory.
The impact of not delivering this project:
- Blind and partially sighted children will become further excluded from our visual world as technological advances in VR take sighted audiences into new realms of discovery. Harnessing the potential of Touch to See technology for blind and partially sighted children will remain a distant and receding notion.
Why we are the right partner
As storytellers, we know how to bring the visual world to life for those who have sight loss. Living Paintings has 30 years’ experience of working with and supporting the needs of blind and partially sighted people of all ages. Our Touch to See books are greatly loved and appreciated as they unlock the visual world and are repletre with educational and inspirational information. Our books are meticulously researched to include a wealth of information about a diverse range of subjects.
Will you come with us on this exciting new journey and help blind and partially sighted children to embrace the opportunities of Virtual Reality?
To see what difference Living Paintings already makes - meet Tayen, Ted and Sue, just three of our 15,500 library members, please watch this short video, our BBC Lifeline Appeal film.