Abbey at your fingertips

People who are visually impaired could soon have Thornton Abbey at their fingertips thanks to an innovative collaboration between the University of Hull and Visually Impaired Media Access Consultants.

People who are visually impaired could soon have Thornton Abbey at their fingertips thanks to an innovative collaboration between the University of Hull’s Design Enterprise Centre (DEC) and local business, Visually Impaired Media Access Consultants (Vimac).

Visually impaired people face many barriers to enjoying historical places of interest.  Recognising this, Vimac set out to create a solution that would enhance the experience for visually impaired visitors by enabling them to appreciate the visual and physical impact of historical sites.  Vimac worked with the University’s DEC, using the technology the centre offers to create a tactile model of the Gatehouse at English Heritage’s Thornton Abbey.

The model is a detailed replica which is held in the hand and enables users to experience the Abbey through touch.  The model replicates the intricate detailing of the Abbey’s architecture fully enhancing the experience for the visitor.

Naomi Piatt, visually-impaired and a user of Vimac products commented, ‘I think the model’s amazing. I remember going to Thornton Abbey when I could see fully and this helps recreate that experience. I love going to visit museums and historical sites and if there is something there for me as a partially-sighted person that enables me to get more out of my visit that’s great.  It’s just something for you – it shows they’ve thought about you.’

The University worked with Vimac and English Heritage on the project as it gave them an opportunity to experiment with the technology the Design Enterprise Centre has. To produce the prototype, images of Thornton Abbey were scanned into a computer using a 3D laser. They then manipulated this data using Computer Aided Design and fed the resulting information into their rapid prototyping machine to produce a tactile model made of plastic. English Heritage is currently considering working with Vimac and the University to make models such as this available at Thornton Abbey and other sites.

Kevin Booth, Senior Curator for the North of England at English Heritage said, “This is an impressive technology with real potential to help bring history to life, particularly for visually impaired visitors. We have used tactile models elsewhere at our sites, but nothing entailing this degree of precision.  The results are really quite remarkable.”