Inclusion through Technology
The Freedom of Virtual Worlds
Formats like virtual reality, the metaverse, or 3D animation can allow people with disabilities to walk, express themselves, or move. Uruguayan artist Fabián Barros experiments with virtual environments and talks about how technology can fuel inclusion.
By Cecilia Álvarez
Fabián Barros, do you believe that new technologies are an opportunity for inclusion?
I believe there are enormous opportunities. I have always felt that it is a market or an area that is completely underserved for the potential it has on an artistic level, on a professional level, a business level, on every level. As happens with so many minorities, this area, which is very vast when you focus on it, is made invisible in terms of what is so-called normal. In virtual environments we have the freedom of having certain behaviors, which are modeled. They are not real physical behaviors, but from certain presets or motion capture we can have abilities that we don’t have in real life, for example, flying, being under water and not needing to come up for air, or moving at a certain speed, which is unusual. From the beginning I have been trying to integrate that into the different activities I’ve been doing.
Have you worked with people with disabilities in this context?
On two very different projects. One of them was with a youth tango orchestra, very alternative, called “Juana y los heladeros del tango”. Juana (Virginia Núñez) is an excellent performer. The entire ensemble has an inclusive approach and a very critical attitude towards the traditional, exclusionary machismo in tango. They invited me to work on a tango project for people with hearing loss. The idea came up to make a narrative, a small staging of a scene with music and dance where an anecdote linked the history of tango to immigrants who arrive in Uruguay by boat. It was a tremendous challenge! How could we do that so the people with hearing loss could perceive and somehow feel some sort of exchange with what was being shown?
“Tango Sentido”, a tango project for people with hearing loss, Sala Zitarrosa, Montevideo, 2019 | Photo: Fabián Barros The first challenge was to identify which frequencies of sound they could perceive. There are many degrees of hearing loss, but there are certain frequencies, the low ones basically, that can be perceived through the vibration in the floor, for example. So, the participants entered barefoot, they were asked to take off their shoes. Balloons also vibrate, if you hold them in your hand against your body when there are low sounds, so that also helped.
Now, what did we do with medium and high frequencies? For that I invented a visual code with a corresponding series where, for example, I assigned yellow triangles to the sound of the transverse flute, red squares to the bandoneon, green stars to the piano, and blue balls to the double bass. That required each musician to be in a specific place because I would project that person and they were audio reactive. In other words, when the flute was playing the yellow triangles were visible and when the bandoneon was playing, the red squares were. Additionally, we had sign language translators. At the end of that whole experience, I invited them to a tango class. There were a couple of tango teachers who put balloons between them and taught them the basic steps. It was beautiful, an unparalleled interaction.
You were also involved in a project with people who have cerebral palsy. Could you talk about that?
I am on the faculty at ORT and, in 2019, in the Digital Art Workshop as part of the Multimedia degree, we worked in partnership with the Escuela Horizonte, a specialized institution that has a home for children and youth with cerebral palsy. We do this kind of work because there are entire populations who do not have access to specific content. So, we thought it would be good to have the students’ involvement in the research. I invited therapists and educational psychologists, and we made the first visit, which went very well. It was intense. There are realities that nobody wants to see, and often times the connection to those realities is made through charities. It seems to me that that is not the way; we must start instead from a place of respect so we can understand what we can do and what we cannot do, how to interact, even if it is simply because it is a neglected area of the market.
Mobility is an area that I think is key.
What possibilities can the space of the metaverse offer to projects like this?
Mobility is an area that I think is key. The sensors are still being developed, but today, if you have mobility in your hands and not in your legs, you can interact in the metaverse, walk, run, fly, without any kind of limitation, just using the controls.
Are there risks and problems associated with these new technologies? Economic accessibility and the technology gap, for instance?
As for the economic question, I understand it’s a progression, as has always occurred with technology, which starts out being very expensive and progressively becomes cheaper. But now it is expensive, and it is complicated if you want to be more than a user and also produce. But I would say that on that side I don’t see much complexity. As for the other, the technology gap, yes there are all kinds of risks, psychiatric risks, I’d say, because there are people who are not able to undergo a distortion of reality or to have a layer of alternative reality where confusion is going to be increasingly greater.
I am not negative at all. I love the 21st century, but I am aware of all the complexity and the risks involved in all this. The issue is that those of us who have some training and affinity with these areas are in a position to raise awareness and, above all, generate a culture that is critical of those media, as not only utilitarian.