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U. professor creates accessible digital map of Zimmerli Art Museum

The Zimmerli Art Museum has been digitally mapped by a University professor, his team and the Zimmerli staff to increase accessibility for people with disabilities.  – Photo by zimmerliartmuseum / Instagram

Beginning in August, Jie Gong, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, created a digital map of the Zimmerli Art Museum building with his team of students and the Zimmerli staff. 

Gong said in a press release that digital maps of the museum can provide online, immersive simulations of exhibitions and increase accessibility for visitors with disabilities.

Nicole Simpson, the associate curator of Prints and Drawings at the Zimmerli, said that Gong and the Zimmerli's director, Maura Reilly, aim to make the museum more user-friendly for all people.

Simpson said she heard about the digital map project after Riley and Gong decided to collaborate and was intrigued by its intersection of technology and art.

"It has been really wonderful to partner with the engineering department, who has access to cutting-edge technology and is very interested in looking for ways that the humanities and the sciences can enrich each other," she said.

Chong Di, a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who is on Gong's team, said that the project consisted of scanning the museum using a FARO Focus X350 laser scanner and compiling the scans.

The team then developed the map from their lab and highlighted museum exhibits as well as places where certain accessible architectural features, such as ramps and elevators, are located.

So far, the team has scanned the museum in panoramic images, and data from those images teaches a machine learning algorithm to identify specific objects, allowing the team to store catalogs of various exhibitions, Di said.

Simpson said the Zimmerli's numerous exhibitions are a hurdle in this project, as the scanning process of the building itself is slow, and updating different artworks annually is a difficult task given the time constraints.

"Depending on the size of the room (and) how many walls are in the room, they might have to take several scans of each space," she said.

Di said that the museum currently has no audio tours available, limiting engagement for audiences with special needs and causing them to depend on museum staff.

He hopes that the team's technology will fill that gap by offering voice assistance for navigation and accessibility through mobile phones, he said. The model will also undergo quality checks and refinement procedures before it is released to the public.

"I'm happy to see how our research endeavors will help improve the experiences on campus," Di said. "(Rutgers') campus is a complex environment and is therefore an ideal testbed for new technologies."

In October, the Zimmerli organized a disability awareness event during its monthly SparkNight gathering. Through this event and its outreach, the museum seeks feedback to improve its user-friendliness and accessibility, Simpson said.

The team's larger goal is to create digital models of the New Brunswick campus. Gong has collaborated with another university to support disabled people by increasing access to transportation and services in other cities, according to the release. 

"It's a learning process for all of us and something that we're very excited about doing here at the Zimmerli (museum) and then (seeing further) applications throughout the rest of campus," Simpson said.

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