Project Details

Project Date : 2015, Synlab at Georgia Tech and Ryerson University
Project Participants:Jamie Kwan (Physical Design, Prototyping), Jean Chu (Visual Design, Research) Daniel Harley (Narrative Design, Research), Melanie McBride (Scent Design), Oliver Zhang (Brainstorming, Narrative Design)
Advisor: Ali Mazalek
Publication: TEI 2015 Work In Progress (In Review)
Tools : 3D Rhino, Arduino, Processing

Multi-sensory Prayer Nuts

How can museum interaction provide a multi-sensory experience that is more memorable than just looking without any contact?

Our goal is to enhance an artifact's presentation in museum spaces by meaningfully linking tangible and embodied interactions to the historical multisensory use of the artifact. We draw inspiration from historical texts, and invite visitors to use their sensory faculties to develop a personal connection with the artifact. Together, our interactions create an experience that is embodied, visual, aural, tactile, and olfactory, without compromising conservation efforts.

Like many cultural history artifacts, prayer-nuts originate from a distinct mulitisensory context, but are also delicate enough to require a glass case to ensure their conservation. Created in the Low Countries in the 16th century, prayer-nuts are intricately carved devotional objects that were symbols of wealth and piety [1,2]. Falkenburg describes this as a time in which laypeople developed personal religious experiences, which included a “dependence of spirituality on material objects.”

The interior (left) and the exterior (right) of a 16th century prayer-nut (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

We created three 3D-printed tangible objects similar in size to the original prayer-nuts, embedded with sensors to detect the visitor’s interactions. The visitor uses their senses to interpret historical practices, guided by text, visual, and/or aural cues. The interactions are mapped meaningfully to the senses and grounded in the artifact’s history and practice. Projections and speakers provide historical information as well as additional visual and audio content.

“Visual Voyage”

This prototype provides a tactile interaction to engage with the prayer-nuts. Opening and closing the prayer-nuts, or touching its outer and inner carvings were integral for achieving a physical closeness to the sacred subject matter. Scholten [1] writes, “The manual act of opening and closing that this meditative technique entails is reminiscent of the opening of a prayerbook, or even of the panels of a large altar.”

This prototype is a 3D-printed tangible replica that enables visitors to explore the outer design and texture of the artifact. Users can open the tangible object to trigger a projection of an enlarged version of the biblical scene depicted in the prayer-nut. Touching the scene inside the tangible object highlights the corresponding features in the projection, providing text that explains their context and importance.

“Experiencing Spirituality”

Experiencing Spirituality interaction (top) and projected animations (bottom)

This prototype is inspired by the contemplative experience of prayer-nuts in 16th century religious practices. The prayer rituals were often private, personal experiences that took place outside the church. Falkenburg [1] suggests that the prayer-nuts “aided and directed the soul during prayer and meditation,” and represented a “complete meditative world encompassing in itself the entire rosary prayer.”

On approach, the visitor sees a projection depicting a historical layperson holding a prayer-nut in a marketplace, establishing the context and cosmopolitan setting of the Low Countries. When the tangible object is held, the image displayed on the wall transitions to a first-person perspective, showing hands holding the prayer-nut. Visitors can experience a transition from a secular world to a “spiritual” world by relaxing their breathing while holding the tangible object. The interaction is completed when the scene of the marketplace transitions into a scene of a cathedral. The ambient sounds of the marketplace are replaced with sacred music written in the early 16th century.

Scents of Power” interaction (top) and animations (bottom)

This prototype focuses on the scents of the prayer-nuts, which would have served various purposes. Some carried metaphorical meaning, linking the owner of the prayer-nut with the church and the biblical texts; others were believed to have apotropaic qualities, warding off evil or sickness [1].

This prototype presents two tangible objects affixed to the table, with animations projected directly onto the tangibles. Opening the objects displays images of fragrant ingredients and text describing their historical context. If both objects are opened, an animation appears that connects the objects with a blending of colors, implying the blending of smells. The scents are composed of spices and essential oils, inspired by preparations described in historical texts.

Technology and Implementation

Physical Design:Using reference images from several available museum resources, we designed a 3D-printed tangible using Rhinoceros, a computer-aided design software typically used in architectural and industrial design applications. The tangible object borrows only the form and texture of the artifact specifically to convey a tactile sense of scale and texture. The tangible objects were printed on a uPrint SE 3D printer in ABS plastic at 1:1 scale.

3D model and the printed prayer nut

Input & Output: “Visual Voyage” uses a five-pin momentary capacitive sensor to provide tactile points of contact. “Scents of Power” uses a flex sensor affixed to a hinge to trigger projected animations. “Experiencing Spirituality” uses a capacitive sensor to register the user’s touch and to initiate the beginning of the interaction sequence. Activating the capacitive sensor also cues a temperature sensor to monitor how long the tangible object is held. The Arduino program receives the sensing data as input and sends select information to a Processing sketch to display graphics, visuals and animations according to the user’s interaction. Audio feedback was also provided in some interactions through the use of the Minim library.

Scent Design: Historically, prayer-nuts contained a variety of “sweet-smelling ingredients such as amber, musk, flag iris, cinnamon, citrus peel, saffron, clove, labdanum, lavender, aloe, nutmeg, frankincense (olibanum), rose leaves, sandalwood, spikenard, violet, tragacanth, and benzoin (styrax)” [1; cf. 3]. Composed of essential oils, we created scents inspired by historical preparations. We chose from these two contrasting scents, a spiced scent and a floral scent. The first was composed of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, frankincense and a touch of rose. The second emphasized lavender, with a touch of cinnamon. To simulate the missing aroma of the original prayer-nut’s fragrant wood housing, each scent also included sandalwood and cedarwood essential oils.

3D model and the printed prayer nut

We are currently running user studies to investigate the usage of narrative and embodied interaction for visitor's experience.

[1] Reindert Falkenburg and Frits Scholten. 1999. A Sense of Heaven: 16th Century Boxwood Carvings for Private Devotion. Leeds (The Henry Moore Institute).
[2] Frits Scholten. 2011. Prayer-nut for Francois Du Puy. Burlington magazine 153, 1300, 447–451.
[3] R H Soden-Smith. 1874. Notes on Pomanders. Archaeological Journal 31, 1, 337–343.


DIS 2016 Conference Proceeding Jean Ho Chu, Daniel Harley, Jamie Kwan, Melanie McBride, and Ali Mazalek. 2016. Sensing History: Contextualizing Artifacts with Sensory Interactions and Narrative Design. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS '16). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1294-1302.

TEI 2016 Work in Progress
Jamie Kwan, Jean Ho Chu, Daniel Harley, Melanie McBride, and Ali Mazalek. 2016. Grasping Cultural Context through Multisensory Interactions. In Proceedings of the TEI '16: Tenth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI '16). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 482-487.

"Sensing context: Reflexive design principles for intersensory museum interactions." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 16, 2016. Consulted April 10, 2019.