Robot gives virtual tours of UK art exhibitions

Robot gives virtual tours of UK art exhibitions
The Hastings Contemporary gallery in the UK has employed a robot that roams the halls of the gallery to provide virtual tours of art exhibitions to live streaming pundits, including pieces created by renowned UK artist Quentin Blake.

The robot, developed by Double Robotics, broadcasts a live feed for guests, traversing the gallery to show the work of artists at the gallery including part of Quentin Blake’s aptly named exhibition ‘We Live in Worrying Times’. The robot was initially developed as a means to make art galleries and tours more accessible to potential visitors, but has found a natural fit to provide tours amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Speaking exclusively to Inavate, Will Barrett, communications manager and robot operator, Hastings Contemporary said: “One of our trustees, Esther Fox, runs Accentuate UK, a non profit that challenges perceptions of disability to provide opportunities for deaf and disabled people to interact in the cultural centre. 

“Esther has a connection with Bristol Robotics Lab, who have used robots for other projects. There were talks last year to lease a robot to create a project based around getting people with disabilities or people who were incapacitated such as people in hospices and care homes a means to experience the gallery. By the time we hit February and we saw what was happening globally, it occurred to us that we should accelerate our robot project. We quickly discovered that a telepresence robot had never been used in a UK gallery on a long-term basis.”

The robot comprised of a Segway and iPod is controlled remotely by gallery staff. The tours run for approximately 30 minutes on Mondays and Thursdays with a focus on two separate exhibitions and a general tour of the gallery.  Up to five tourists are able to join the tour and interact with other users and the tour guide via voice chat. 

Robot Tour for #MuseumFromHome Day from Hastings Contemporary on Vimeo.

Barrett explained: “From a passenger point of view, it’s a bit like a teleconference. Passengers can see the point of view of the robot as well as a smaller window with the face of the driver live streamed from the driver’s laptop. The driver can speak and also screen share to show images and web pages to show references to other paintings and relevant web content.” 

Users are sent a link to join the session five minutes before the tour starts, being asked to enter their name, location and occupation as an ice breaker. Participants can join on any device without technical set up.

The interactive, live-streamed nature of the robot tour allows users to interact in a way that inhibits feelings of social anxiety, creating a conversational and inquisitive atmosphere with a more personal feeling as Barrett explained: “We do encourage people to ask questions. You can hear and interact with everyone. We didn’t anticipate how important the social contact aspect would be. Often, we talk about the gallery but people bring their own ideas and revelations. It’s amazing how much people have appreciated that time together on the tour, it’s very refreshing at a time when there is not a lot of contact. 

“It’s changed how our tours work. Face to face tours can be quite passive, as often art galleries are hushed environments and people are often not very interrogative. With people interacting from their own homes in environments that they are more comfortable in, people are often more open, and we would love to get that level of interaction with people on a physical tour."

Looking to the future, it’s clear that robots could play a role in the inclusion of disabled or incapacitated tourists, with the possibility for expanded operation at the Hastings Contemporary Gallery and beyond. Barrett closes: “Disability access can be quite expensive. There’s a lot of other interesting technologies such as the robot that exist and people need to be a bit brave and think about collaborating, pioneering and experimenting. We pride ourselves on being entrepreneurial and I think that the technology is going to become much better and more viable from a cost and time perspective.”

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