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Morrigan Kelley (left) wears augmented reality glasses to transmit images of a painting at the Rockwood Museum, while Margalit Schindler examines other details of the museum.

Morrigan Kelley (left) wears augmented reality glasses to transmit images of a painting at the Rockwood Museum, while Margalit Schindler examines other details of the museum.

Photo by Ivan Crepe

Augmented reality device tests show promise for professionals and students

Joel Wickens was on the ground floor of a local museum, watching as two University of Delaware alumni worked on a project assessing the preservation needs of the historic building and its collections.

The two, both former students in the University of London’s Department of Art Conservation, were three floors above Wickens, using an innovative type of technology called augmented reality to show signs of water damage in the attic. From the wheelchair she uses to move around outside her home, the assistant professor of art conservation was intently studying a laptop screen as she explored various features of the technology and chatted with students through their devices.

“I was so focused on testing the device that I didn’t immediately think about what I was actually seeing,” Wickens said. “Then I suddenly realized that although I had worked with this museum for a long time, I was seeing the attic for the first time. It was an amazing experience for me.”

Joelle Wickens uses her laptop to view real-time images transmitted by an augmented reality headset while she and her team test the technology and explore its potential uses.

Joelle Wickens uses her laptop to view real-time images transmitted by an augmented reality headset while she and her team test the technology and explore its potential uses.

It’s an experiment she believes has a wide range of applications – not just for people with mobility issues or other disabilities and not just in the field of art preservation – that could benefit professionals, students and educators.

Wickens and her team are using a Microsoft device called HoloLens 2, in which the user wears a headset with a mask on to access augmented or mixed reality. Augmented reality (AR) is something akin to virtual reality often used in games and other entertainment, but provides additional features and ways to interact with the real world, including electronic screens that are arranged in front of the wearer’s eyes.

“Augmented reality means you’re covering the virtual world,” said Eric Cantrell, the college’s director of computing operations for the College of Arts and Sciences’ Information Technology Group. “The technology is interactive, and it’s a clean, immersive interface.”

Preparing the technology for testing at the Rockwood Museum are UD team members (front, left) Margalit Schindler, Tim Leefeldt, Eric Cantrell, and Joelle Wickens;  Behind them (from left) Museum Director Ryan Grover speaks with Morrigan Kelly.

Preparing the technology for testing at the Rockwood Museum are UD team members (front, left) Margalit Schindler, Tim Leefeldt, Eric Cantrell, and Joelle Wickens; Behind them (from left) Museum Director Ryan Grover speaks with Morrigan Kelly.

In their tests of the technology, former students Margalit Schindler and Morrigan Kelly wore HoloLens 2 headphones as they explored the Rockwood Museum in Wilmington, whose director, Ryan Grover, has been working with UD to develop a preservation plan for the building and its contents. Schindler and Kelley were able to show both overviews of rooms like the attic and close-ups of water damage to its wooden ceiling. They were also thrilled to discover that the lens could accommodate the addition of a magnifier, allowing Wickens to distinguish between a 3mm dust piece and a carpet beetle, an essential task in this type of evaluation.

Augmented reality technology offers advantages over other types of remote access such as viewing still images or video from a tablet or handheld phone, says Wickens, who specializes in preventive conservation.

“When someone wears one of these clothes,” she said, “you see exactly what they see, and in crisp detail.” “If I see something I want to investigate further, I can direct the wearer immediately to go to what I want to see next.”

Margalit Schindler, a Winterthur/UD graduate in Art Conservation and now a Principal Conservator with Pearl Preservation, adjusts the HoloLens 2 before starting a tour of the Rockwood Museum.

Margalit Schindler, a Winterthur/UD graduate in Art Conservation and now a Principal Conservator with Pearl Preservation, adjusts the HoloLens 2 before starting a tour of the Rockwood Museum.

Wickens and the UD technologists working with her to test and fine-tune the technology pooled ideas on several possible academic uses, including more remote teaching and learning opportunities for potential restoration professionals or the ability for a chemistry student to self-quarantine due to COVID exposure to share in a lab. On campus from home.

The COVID pandemic and the lockdowns it brought about first sparked Wickens’ awareness of technology. A conservation scientist told her how Britain’s National Health Service used headsets that allowed a single medical professional to don protective clothing and an augmented reality device to visit a patient, while colleagues participated in care and assessment from outside a hospital room.

“The pandemic has us all thinking about doing things differently – doing a lot of virtual things – and it seems like this could be very helpful,” Wickens said. Her first thoughts were of the time, money, and environmental impact that could be saved by sending a headset, rather than a museum professional, along with a collection loan to survey and document the condition of the pieces when they arrived at the host institution.

Margalit Schinler holds a magnifying glass to a painting so that Morrigan Kelly, wearing an augmented reality device, can pass the details on for Joel Wickens to see on her laptop.

Margalit Schinler holds a magnifying glass to a painting so that Morrigan Kelly, wearing an augmented reality device, can pass the details on for Joel Wickens to see on her laptop.

Her next thought was ways in which technology could simplify her work.

“My students and I have worked in many multi-story historic buildings that do not have elevators that are accessible to the disabled, and I have used many methods of work,” she said. “But I realized that this technology could fill an immediate need for me.”

Wickens ordered the HoloLens 2 and was given it to Eric Cantrell, director of college computing operations for the College of Arts and Sciences’ Information Technology Group. Cantrell had been interested in technology for some time and believed it had educational potential.

“I’m really glad Joel saw the potential and got right into it,” he said. “There are many uses, beyond any mobility issues.”

In the museum's attic, team members (from left) Margalit Schindler, Morrigan Kelly, and Tim Liefeldt examine the condition of some rafters.

In the museum’s attic, team members (from left) Margalit Schindler, Morrigan Kelly, and Tim Liefeldt examine the condition of some rafters.

Wickens, who acknowledges that technology is “not my first love,” said the support and enthusiasm from Cantrell and Tim Liefeldt, also from the college’s IT group, has been invaluable.

Wearing a headset “takes a bit of getting used to,” said Schindler, a 2022 graduate of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Preservation who is now the chief conservator of pearls. Pilot testing has shown that the device works best when wearers learn to move their head slowly and smoothly and adjust their gaze to align objects with the camera on the eyebrow rather than with their eyes.

But with these modifications, Schindler said “it’s great to use.”

Some of the damage to the museum's upper floor ceiling was examined by (from left) Ryan Grover, Margalit Schindler, Morrigan Kelly and Tim Liefeldt.

Some of the damage to the museum’s upper floor ceiling was examined by (from left) Ryan Grover, Margalit Schindler, Morrigan Kelly and Tim Liefeldt.

Going forward, the plans are to collaborate with Microsoft to see if certain features — such as specialized lighting that would be especially useful in art conservation work — can be built into the technology.

Also interested in the project is Karen Latimer, an assistive technology specialist with the Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative located in the Center for Disability Studies at the University of Delaware. Latimer is considering adding an augmented reality device to the statewide technology library that can be borrowed and used by people with disabilities.

About Joel Wickens and the Project

Joel D.J. Wickens is Assistant Professor of Protective Conservation and Associate Director of Graduate Studies Winterthur / UD Program in Art Preservation.

Preventive restorers work to protect cultural heritage, such as historic buildings and museum collections, from environmental damage. They often conduct assessments to help develop conservation and emergency preparedness plans.

Wickens’ current work focuses on advancing the practice of the discipline to place social, economic, and environmental sustainability at its core and to help expand and diversify the field.

Rookwood Park and Museum in Wilmington is a 72-acre site owned and operated by New Castle County, Delaware. The museum is housed in a 19th-century Gothic country revival mansion that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Margalit Schindler (left), wearing a HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset, talks with Joelle Wickens about the technology and its usefulness in the Rockwood Museum's project to develop a preservation plan for the historic building and its collections.

Margalit Schindler (left), wearing a HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset, talks with Joelle Wickens about the technology and its usefulness in the Rockwood Museum’s project to develop a preservation plan for the historic building and its collections.

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