Jonathan Duckworth

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Jonathan Duckworth wearing his work Embracelet. Photo by Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT Gallery 2009

Jonathan Duckworth wearing his work Embracelet. Photo by Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT Gallery 2009.

Taking the virtual back into the physical

Jonathan Duckworth works at the junction of art and science, using his background as an architect to design virtual environments for patients. The artist, designer and PhD candidate at the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, has two works in the Super Human exhibition which require people to interact with the technology.

However, though both Embracelet and Elements look like enjoyable virtual reality games or art combined with a medical aid, these are in fact art works which use technology to assist in fostering positive change.

Elements is a desktop virtual environment developed in collaboration with Associate Professor Peter H Wilson in RMIT’s School of Health Sciences. It’s an interactive work that assists and promotes relearning in brain injury patients.

Embracelet is intended to be a prototype of a device that can be strapped to the arm and provides visual feedback based on grip strength.

“While I was working in the Virtual Reality Centre in RMIT I was approached by a patient who suffered from traumatic brain injury. They were interested in seeing if there was any virtual rehabilitation that could help them,” Duckworth said.

“Acquired brain injury – through violent incidents, and car and workplace accidents, predominantly affects young men and poses a significant cost to the country. A virtual reality game is an accessible and non-threatening way into rehabilitation for many people.”

According to Duckworth, the optimal window of opportunity for therapy is six months after the trauma.

“When we experimented with ideas to help people in a virtual setting, we soon realised we didn’t want to strap sensors to people, so the concept of having them hold an object and drag it across a screen evolved,” he said.

The resulting work – Elements – shapes experiences depending on people’s levels of disability. The focus is on upper limb movement encouraging the sort of movements that are quite challenging for patients.

Patients have to lift and place objects on moving targets on the screen, and then they are able to explore the environment at their own pace. Trials both Melbourne’s Epworth Hospital and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Children’s Hospital in London have been encouraging. There is interest now in a widespread commercial application of the work.

Elements is part of my work in conceptualising, designing and creating a look and feel of an environment,” Duckworth said.

‘”I am interested in taking the virtual back into the physical.”

This philosophy can be seen in the second of Duckworth work’s in Super Human – the arm piece called Embracelet, which he terms “rehab jewellery.”

“My idea is that patients can take this home and practice grip movements. Initially they might under grip or over grip, but they are provided feedback with the lights which record grip strength,” Duckworth said.

What sets Embracelet apart from a medical aid is its aesthetic quality – Duckworth has embedded jewels on the metal surface and has used recycled rubber from a bicycle wheel – a reference to the fact that a lot of the patients who will use the item have suffered trauma from road accidents.

“I wanted to make Embracelet excessively decorative to contrast with what the actual purpose of the device is,” Duckworth said.

“While it is a work of art, it is actually a lot of fun to use and we have received a lot of interest from rehabilitation groups.

“If as artists we can enhance people’s lives by providing an aesthetically resonant environment then that is pretty significant.”

For media enquiries, photos and interviews with artists, contact RMIT Gallery Media Coordinator Evelyn Tsitas at RMIT Gallery
Tel: +61 3 9925 1716