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RFID and Sensors Illustrate Art's Impact on People

At the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland, museumgoers wore gloves containing active RFID tags and wireless biometric sensors, thereby recording biological and cognitive reactions to each piece of art.
By Brett Neely
Aug 31, 2009 Though millions of people walk the halls of art museums worldwide, exhibit curators often have little insight into how visitors experience the artwork on display. At a Swiss art museum filled with paintings and sculptures by Monet, Renoir, Klee and other renowned artists, a recently concluded experiment paired RFID location-sensing technology with wireless biometric sensors to determine how museum visitors emotionally responded to the artwork.

The goal of the experiment, entitled "eMotion: Mapping Museum Experience," was to see how "the perception of 'art' can be measured." A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Institute for Research in Art and Design and the University of Applied Science Northwestern Switzerland spent five weeks observing the reactions of visitors to a special exhibit at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, located in eastern Switzerland.

Prior to entering the exhibit, eMotion participants were asked a series of questions.

"We approached various Swiss museums, and many were very unsure about our project However, St. Gallen was open to it," says Steven Greenwood, an artist and programmer who served as the project's technical manager. "St. Gallen created a classic 20th-century exhibition for us that covered many of the questions that the scientists and art experts were interested in."

Visitors who volunteered to take part in the experiment, which ended in July of this year, were outfitted with a special glove containing a Ubisense active ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID tag that broadcasted the wearer's location four times per second via a 6-8.5 GHz RF signal. Each glove also contained sensors that tracked the electrical conductivity of the wearer's skin, as well as that person's pulse. The electrical conductivity information was used as a proxy measure for cognitive stimulation, while the heart-rate data served as an indicator of emotional excitement.

Each glove contained a Ubisense active RFID tag, as well as wireless sensors that tracked the electrical conductivity of the wearer's skin, as well as pulse.

The RFID tags transmitted the location data to Ubisense Series 7000 RFID readers, then forwarded that information to Ubisense's Location Platform, which has standard application programming interfaces (APIs) that can export the data to other applications. The biometric data was transmitted via wireless LAN to a MySQL database, where it was merged with the location information. The location data was then used to determine which specific artworks the visitor had been viewing, and how long that individual had looked at each piece. By pairing the location and biometric data, the researchers could measure a participant's biological and cognitive reaction to each work of art.

Before entering the exhibit, the visitors were asked a series of questions, such as their age and nationality, whether they had heard of the research project and their level of interest in art. In order to calibrate the biometric sensors, the volunteers were also asked questions such as whether they smoke cigarettes or recently drank a cup of coffee.

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