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We were awarded ‘Best Paper’ at UbiComp, Beijing!

Janet and Louise shown holding the award

Our paper ‘Haptic Reassurance in the Pitch Black for an Immersive Theatre Experience‘ has just been awarded best paper at the international technology conference UbiComp 2011 in Beijing, China.

The paper  authored  by the Open University, Rusty Squid and Extant is based on our outcomes and evaluation of The Question and has been selected from 304 international papers submitted for the conference on ubiquitous computing.

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Guerilla Science – Secret Garden Party

Adam Spiers was invited in July to present a demonstration of the Haptic Lotus at Guerrilla Science summer festival event The Secret Garden Party

Woman with grass and hay in the background, repairing a lotus with the lid off and electronics exposed


17:00-22:00 Blind Robot’s Bluff: Adam Spiers Navigate through darkness with the Haptic Lotus, a cybernetic instrument that manoeuvres through space with engineered grace. Use the unfolding petals to guide you to your destination, and ponder the meaning of light in the dark.

A man dressed as a wizard holding a Lotus in the middle of a gazebo

Based on a mock up we had tested at the DHRA conference last September, Adam   and his assistants set up a similar situation in a tent at the festival.  They attached some cylindrical containers (each containing a sweet) to the corners of a gazebo with magnets. This was the corner where the target ‘beacon’, sound source and some interesting textures were hung up (fake fur, garden twine and corrugated card). Before people went in to the installation blind folded   and wearing headphones, they were told that they needed to find these objects and that the Lotus would guide them there.

a person with skeleton / zombie face paint holding a Lotus and being blindfolded

They were also given the option of racing their friends, which worked quite well. Surprisingly nearly everyone managed to find the container and return to the entrance with it!

A man dressed as a bear, blindfolded, holding the Lotus and sweet container, with a big grin on his face!

Peter Bennett AKA ‘Pencil Beam’, made a short and sharp atmospheric looping sound track that fitted in with the feel of the technology.  This activated in the blindfolded persons headphones when they moved near the target tactile area where the container hung.

‘Pencil Beam’ music production can be found at

Listen to the track here:

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More images can be seen on Flickr at

In other news – our paper has been accepted for publication at UbiCom! Read more here

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Full DVD and evaluation videos

You can now access the full DVD of the Question on our DVD page and a video of interviews taken during our evaluation process can be found on our new Evaluation page.

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How can I get involved?

In mid-June 2010, a research and development partnership of artists and scientists led by Extant will present a first phase of immersive theatre to an invited audience made up of a wide range of people.

Both visually impaired and sighted audience members will navigate a specially designed audio and tactile environment, using hand held, haptic devices.  The performance will take place in pitch darkness, encouraging audience members to discover the relationship between their body and the sensing/navigating technology of the haptic device.

The performance lasts approximately 30 minutes.  After the performance, we will ask audience members to give us feedback, to influence the development of our research.  Feedback sessions will last approximately 30 minutes.

If you want to be invited:

Please click here to enter your details and explain why it would be a good idea for you to attend.

Important: Please note that the project is in a research and development phase and audience numbers are limited.  We cannot guarantee that every request to experience the installation will be met.

Location: Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Battersea, London, SW11 5TN

For information and queries, contact us on

Do you want to volunteer on the project?

We are looking for volunteers to help us with the installation and the running of the project in mid-June 2010. If you are interested please get in contact.

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Why are we doing it?


For several years Extant’s research has involved working with visually impaired actors in physical theatre, a form of body based theatrical interpretation usually denied to visually impaired performers.  We have also aimed to make stage areas and visuals on stage for blind audiences more accessible.

This research was consolidated in our first production, called Resistance, which toured extensively nationally and internationally in 2005.  Though many of our aims were met in the producing of Resistance,  such as creating  sound equivalents to the visuals on stage, It gradually became clear that the traditional theatre spaces we were using might not fully serve the purpose of our exploration in this area.  The one thing that all the 25 different theatres that we toured to had in common, from small church halls to large 600 seat proscenium arch spaces, was that   they were all set up in the same physical way, in that the stage was in front of or surrounded by a bank of seats.  This meant that the drama had to be mediated to the audience via a relationship of the spectacle, which is primarily a relationship of the sighted. It was evident that through following this convention we would not fully achieve our search for theatrical styles more appropriate for visually impaired people.  Therefore, in the next stage of our development Extant explored drama through an immersive or surround space, which is more reflective of a visually impaired person’s connection with the world.

Though there have been other theatrical experiences created based on dark environments, sensory spaces and promenade performances, there has not yet been created a non-visual set, for  blind and sighted audiences to explore virtually and actually in the dark, as they journey through a  narrative dealing with themes of the ‘hidden’.  So, The Question focuses on the experience of the audience.  In particular, we want to:

  • Create an immersive theatrical environment
  • Locate dramatic action within the audience’s physical experience
  • Develop novel sensory substitution technology for navigation (the ‘haptic device’)
  • Research the ways that our haptic device can integrate with audio, narrative and tactile art forms.

You can view the team here.

The Haptic Device

Lotus haptic devices in a row

Adam Spiers gives an overview of his haptic navigation research

The sense of touch is often taken for granted and overlooked by technology developers and designers. Touch holds less information than visual stimulus or sound but when used correctly it can create an information channel that is subtle, personal, intuitive and inclusive. This project has provided the scope for the design and implementation of a unique device and environment centred around creating a dramatic experience independent of sight. This concept, in which sighted and visually impaired people have equal navigational ability, is something I have found fascinating during the preparation of this project and has hopefully been achieved with the Haptic Lotus.

Circuit boards

In terms of research value this project tells us not just whether the device is useful for navigation but also how people deal with having their normal senses augmented with something new. This needn’t be a question just for scientists and philosophers as ‘The Question’s’ experience should give audience members plenty of food for later reflection. If knowledge is experience and experience is based on observation then what happens when your observations occur through an unfamiliar or different medium? That is my question.

Read more about Haptic Technology here.

The Haptic Lotus technology was developed by robotic specialists Adam Spiers, Paul O’Dowd and David McGoran.

Research by Extant

Extant has a long history of research into the creative space of visual impairment.  Here is a selection of our cutting edge projects:

Obscurity (June & September 2009)

Extant’s first piece of outdoor performance, commissioned by Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.  Obscurity is an interdisciplinary, interactive performance in which musicians, artists, actors and audience move together through a dramatic soundscape.  Obscurity re-tells the traditional story of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’, in a modern context.

Burlesque (2007 – ongoing)

In 2007 Extant carried out a piece of research and development into burlesque, comedy and visual impairment.  We worked with burlesque artist Genevieve Chang and Director Alex Bulmer to create ‘Show Girl’, which was presented to an invited audience at the Cochrane Theatre, London.  Since then, we have developed the piece for the 30th anniversary of The Outsiders (a vibrant social and peer support network of disabled people) and the Blind in Theatre (BIT) Festival (an international collaboration of blind arts practitioners).  Extant’s research into burlesque explores the politics of being seen from the point of view of visually impaired people, and we are developing this work into a full length show.

The Cast Party (August 2006)

A pilot, site-specific experimental event, supported by Artsadmin, Orange and The Great Eastern Hotel.  The Cast Party was the first-ever attempt to research how a social environment could be made accessible to visually impaired people.  Visually impaired participants were guided through a social environment by personal describers, who watched the scene from above and gave directions through ear pieces.  The Cast Party won the 29th Annual Arts and Business Diversity Award.

Resistance (2004 – 2005)

Funded by the Arts Council and in collaboration with Turtle Key Arts, Resistance was Extant’s first national and international touring production.  It was also the first time in Britain that a cast of professional visually impaired actors toured. Resistance was a tense and exciting narrative based around the extraordinary true story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind, teenage leader within the French resistance movement of occupied Paris during WWII.  It used physical theatre, experimental dance and live audio description incorporated within the script. This project was unique and evolved new methods of blind stage-craft, improving the creative access for visually impaired performers and audiences within theatre.

Audience Evaluation

One of the primary goals of the Open University is to explore and develop novel ways of learning, and to make these methods accessible to everyone. In the last 15 years the university has raised its research profile, particularly by investigating how new technologies can be used to  support creativity in the arts and sciences. The Haptic Theatre project is about exploring the experience of sensory substitution. By using novel haptic devices, the project creates a new, embodied way of learning about this experience, through philosophical and artistic dimensions. Given the fact that sighted and blind audience members will be starting from the same point, in the darkness, using the same haptic navigation device, the project opens up new comparative possibilities for the accessibility of emerging ubiquitous technologies.
An important part of this project will be to evaluate the experience of members of the audience, by exploring the reactions of blind and sighted audience members, as they navigate through the darkness. This evaluation will be used to inform the design of a new generation of  ”user experience” devices that transcends the notion of disabilities and abilities.
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Who are the collaborators?

The Question is a collaboration led by Extant, who are working with BAC, the Computing Department of The Open University and independent specialists. The Question is funded by the Technology Strategy Board, a business-focused organisation dedicated to promoting technology – enabling innovation across the UK.
The Technology Strategy Board | Extant | The Open University | BAC

Question marks in the shape of a lotus flower, smaller question marks emerge from the centre and are connected via dotted lines.

Technology Strategy Board

The role of the Technology Strategy Board is to stimulate technology-enabled innovation in the areas which offer the greatest scope for boosting UK growth and productivity. They promote, support and invest in technology research, development and commercialisation. They spread knowledge, bringing people together to solve problems or make new advances.

The Technology Strategy Board advises Government on how to remove barriers to innovation and accelerate the exploitation of new technologies. And they work in areas where there is a clear potential business benefit, helping today’s emerging technologies become the growth sectors of tomorrow.
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Extant is the only professional performing arts company in the UK managed by visually impaired arts professionals that aims to promote the arts and culture of the visually impaired community.

Founded in 1997 Extant has grown as a successful innovation in arts management and creative practise, bringing a unique cultural perspective of ‘visual impairment’ to broaden employment, training and consultancy opportunities through the Arts.

Since 1997 Extant has

  • Developed new methods of theatre practise
  • Produced four ground-breaking national tours
  • Toured productions internationally and produced tours for international artists
  • Led arts consultancies, seminars and training in education, business and the arts
  • Been the first disability led organisation to win an Arts and Business Diversity Award in 2007.
  • Mounted  experimental outdoor site specific productions.

Maria Oshodi, Extant’s Artistic Director, and Director of The Question, has recently been cited as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s ‘Women to Watch’ (March 2010)

The Question  was conceived by Maria Oshodi and evolves Extant’s research into the experience of visual impairment as a creative space.
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Independent Specialists

The Haptic Lotus technology was developed by robotic specialists Adam Spiers, Paul O’Dowd and David McGoran

Adam has been designing Haptic navigation aids for the past 6 years and has been in discussions with Extant about creating a theatre-specific haptic device since 2006. The central motivations of Adam’s designs are the concepts of enaction, active exploration and appreciation of the limited bandwidth of non-visual senses. His devices are also designed to be unobtrusive, highly intuitive and applicable to social, rather than laboratory based, situations.

circuit boards with L.E.D.s

Due to the high technical demands of the The Question, Adam collaborated with Paul, a fellow robotics researcher and David, a puppeteer turned roboticist who develops novel actuation mechanisms.

Collectively Adam, Paul and David’s portfolios cover various creative technology projects that have applied robotics technology to systems that are more at home in galleries or public spaces than manufacturing plants or research laboratories. These projects have included canvas mounted drawing robots, giant interactive displays made from household junk and semi autonomous puppets.

The Open University

The Pervasive Interaction Lab at the Open University forms part of the Computing Department, and has its home in the innovative Jennie Lee building in Milton Keynes. This research Lab is made up of an interdisciplinary team comprising computer scientists, cognitive scientists, designers and psychologists. It is primarily concerned with the human aspects of ubiquitous computing, exploring the possible interactions between people, technologies and representations. A main focus is on augmenting and extending everyday, learning and work activities.

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BAC (Battersea Arts Centre)

National newspapers state that BAC is ‘Britain’s most influential theatre’ (The Guardian), ‘a dream factory generating the theatre of tomorrow’ (The Times) and ‘definitely on the map of cultural powerhouses’ (Daily Telegraph).

The birthplace of Jerry Springer the Opera and the first London venue to present Punchdrunk, BAC nurtures talented emerging artists and is renowned for making some of the most cutting-edge new work in the UK. The BAC works with artists who question traditional forms of theatre and make work that often doesn’t start life with a script. Theatre that blurs genres, challenges our view of the world and thrives on experiment. The BAC presents performances across 70 rooms in our old town hall: in theatre spaces, offices, down in the basement and up in the attic. They also have events that spill out of the building and onto the street: in schools, supermarkets, laundrettes, on boating lakes or online.

Housed in a Grade II* listed old town hall, BAC is a place where artists, audience, participants and staff can play a role in inventing the future of theatre.
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Read about the team

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What is Haptic Technology?

Haptic device in the palm of a hand

Haptic technology, or haptics, is a tactile feedback technology that takes advantage of a user’s sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, and/or motions to the user.[1] This mechanical stimulation may be used to assist in the creation of virtual objects (objects existing only in a computer simulation), for control of such virtual objects, and for the enhancement of the remote control of machines and devices (teleoperators). It has been described as “(doing) for the sense of touch what computer graphics does for vision”.[2] Although haptic devices are capable of measuring bulk or reactive forces that are applied by the user, it should not be confused with touch or tactile sensors that measure the pressure or force exerted by the user to the interface.

Haptic technology has made it possible to investigate in detail how the human sense of touch works by allowing the creation of carefully controlled haptic virtual objects. These objects are used to systematically probe human haptic capabilities, which would otherwise be difficult to achieve. These new research tools contribute to the understanding of how touch and its underlying brain functions work (see References).

The word haptic, from the Greek ἁπτικός (haptikos), means pertaining to the sense of touch and comes from the Greek verb ἅπτεσθαι haptesthai meaning to “contact” or “touch”.

From – Wikipedia

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What is “The Question”?

The Question is a collaborative and immersive theatre project that explores haptic technology in relation to navigation, perception and knowledge. Currently in a research and development phase, which culminates in a showing in June 2010 at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), The Question is a collaboration between Extant (the UK’s only professional performing arts company of visually impaired artists), BAC (a space for cutting-edge theatre) and the Computing Department of The Open University

This innovative collaboration between engineers, artists and academics invites participants to explore a tactile and audio environment in the pitch dark.  Audience members will be guided by a haptic device, which uses robotics technology and infrared sensors to change its form in response to their journey through the installation.

The Question focuses on the senses of touch and hearing, and locates the drama of the narrative in the body of each participant.  The story is a fragmented recounting of an abstract blind character, struggling with scientific, philosophical and cultural questions of sensory translation, knowledge and the ultimate impact of these on individual identity.

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