Touching exhibition uses the power of tech to probe the isolating impact of dementia

Can digital technology help those suffering from dementia? That’s the question at the heart of a new London exhibition that centres on the ways touch can tackle isolation and rejuvenate senses diminished by degenerative brain diseases.

Touching exhibition uses the power of tech to probe the isolating impact of dementia

Called Remote Contact, the exhibition consists of works by interactive arts studio Invisible Flock and includes an augmented photo album, a tactile “water synthesiser”, and a pair of “connected gloves”.

The latter, titled I wanna hold your hand, is the result of interviews with a dementia patient called Phil and his wife and carer Julie. According to the studio, the couple always hold hands when they go on a daily walk through their local park, but Phil’s dementia has made mobility an issue and those daily moments of companionship are beginning to dwindle.  

The gloves are designed to measure the GPS route of their walk, as well as the pressure, flex and skin responses, such as sweat, of their clutching palms. The result is a way to map Phil and Julie’s walks with “a record that explores the touch that exists only between the two of them”.

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(Credit: Catherine Baxendale)

Elsewhere, Memory Album attempts to weave a layer of “multi-sensory media playback” into the tactile pleasure of leafing through a photo album, with videos and photos embedded into a book that can be touched, held, pored through. Motion Prints is a recording of motion data, compiled from muscle movements of dementia sufferers as they create sculptures using putty. Water Synthesiser, on the other hand, is an instrument that translates movements of fingers through water into sounds.

The artworks will be on display at the Bloomsbury Gallery in London, between 4 – 9 June, as part of the UCL Festival of Culture. Ahead of its opening, I spoke to Ben Eaton, technical director at Invisible Flock, over email about the ideas behind Remote Contact, and if he can see the projects translating to products for the care sector.

There’s a sense of tactility to all of the works. Why is this important when building pieces around dementia?

The project began from a point of view of exploring touch and its effect, and merged into looking at dementia, so, in a sense, it has always been led by tactility. The reason we explored touch in the first place was inspired by a statistic regarding the lack of physical or emotional contact a terrifyingly large amount of older people experience through isolation. This naturally merged into looking at more formal contexts such as care and from there, into dementia.

Once we began to look specifically at dementia we found that physical contact is a huge and complicated part of it; one that is relatively under-researched. There has been a lot of medical work done on the physiological effects of touch on early stage development but relatively little on elderly care so this felt like a good place to work.

How did you go about researching for the artworks?

We began very openly looking to build a single piece that could be construed more classically as an artwork, but [through] working with a researcher we became acutely aware that proximity to people suffering from dementia was crucial.

Each piece is, more or less, [a] direct response to a person, or pairs of people, we met or interacted with in our research period. We worked with an academic Dr Nadia Berthouze, who specialises in affective computing and helped contextualise the thinking in terms of the digital and physical. But mainly we spent time with people and talked to them and presented them with the work and iterated it with them.

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(Credit: Ed Waring)

Can immersive technologies change the way we think about our relationships with dementia sufferers?

Yes, but it also runs the risk of being a shallow change. Greater empathy does not necessarily result in behaviour change, although it probably is a start. Immersion itself is tricky territory and I am not always persuaded that the best way to understand or engage with someone is through immersing yourself in their experience in a direct way, i.e. through VR.

“I sometimes feel immersion lets us off the hook intellectually”

You can look or talk to a person with dementia and have a conversation and understand the illness and damage it causes without somehow feeling that a synthesised experience has brought you closer. In fact, I sometimes feel immersion lets us off the hook intellectually.

Having said that, there are specific sensory elements to dementia that perhaps being able to experience directly can help people design or think about how to make and create things for dementia sufferers.

With I wanna hold your hand, is there a risk that the use of technology overcomplicates this simple, intuitive gesture?

Absolutely, but in many ways that is the point. Most of the work in the show is the first articulation of a conversation. As such, it is an attempt to highlight very specific conditions or stories, or things we noticed in our interaction with the couples. Each piece is an intervention, almost an over-articulation, of an idea. With the glove, for example, we are putting a digital [layer] in between the two people trying to hold hands.

I think most of what is in the show could never be considered medical or scientific devices. Rather, they are ideas and proposals. So the glove, in that sense; in its ability but also its absolute inability to capture the experience of holding hands, asks us to think about the simplest of gestures more. We then suggest that people can print off a visualisation of this interaction. The print, in itself, tells us little in actual terms but is a marker or a footprint of a moment of physical contact between two people, so inherently there is an importance that is reified ever so slightly.

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(Credit: Ed Waring)

Can you see the artworks you’ve created being used in the care sector?

In terms of our specific works, the Memory Album is in a more finished product stage of its life, and could very well exist in a care home as it was designed to do. We hope that someday it might, as it represents a perfect meeting point between tangible and digital means of recollecting. It works to collapse the distances between people in care and their families, no matter where they live.

Other tools, such as the robotic drawer or some of the work by our guest artists; the Water Synth and Tangible Light, could well have a place in the care sector as more tangible ways for people to interact with technology.

“They are looking […] for meaning in a place where it feels like it can be slipping away”

There are more people who will ultimately end up in care due to an ageing population. I think the families of those people are an often forgotten audience. They are looking for ways to better interact with their loved ones, and also for meaning in a place where it feels like it can be slipping away. We have seen this in our own families as well as during our research, and I think the kind of ideas we are proposing here are strong attempts to begin to provide some of that [interaction].

Lead image credit: Ed Waring

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