A Science Museum that Leaves No One Behind: A "Platform" for Creating the Future

Takagi Hironobu (Executive Director, Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation)

[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE]Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo is taking steps to make their exhibits more naturally accessible to those with visual and auditory impairments.

Model of the International Space Station (ISS). Participants can touch the model to “visualize” its shape and how it works.

A Vision Informed by the Chief Executive Director's Own Visual Impairment

What comes to mind when you think of a science museum? Those who have been to The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (hereafter "Miraikan"—"mirai" meaning "future" and "kan" meaning "building") may recall the "Geo-Cosmos," a 3-D display of the earth six meters in diameter; the exhibit showing the living area of the International Space Station (ISS); or the "Dome Theater," which affords a full-dome, stereoscopic view of the stars. Those with visual impairments, however, cannot see these exhibits. I have had many opportunities to speak to people with visual impairments, and many of them told me they almost never visit museums, despite being interested in them.

The "Geo-Cosmos" is one of Miraikan's best known exhibits. This special display shows video footage on a sphere, but those with visual impairments cannot properly appreciate it.

In April 2021, Miraikan announced its new vision for 2030: "At Miraikan, together with you, we 'Open the future.'" The vision is for Miraikan to be a "platform," or setting, for people to experience new forms of science and technology. The goal is for each and every visitor to be able to envisage the future in ways that feel more personal and relevant to them.

This vision was inspired by the personal experiences of Miraikan's chief executive director, Asakawa Chieko, who has a visual impairment. Asakawa was in junior high school when she lost her vision. At the time, there were no good systems in place to educate and employ those with visual impairments, and they had very limited job opportunities. This would change later, with the invention of personal computers, the Internet, and smartphones, as well as R&D into accessibility-related technologies, resulting in an explosive increase in the information and services available to those with visual impairments. With this came improvements in educational and labor environments as well. Asakawa herself has contributed to these advancements through her work as a researcher, developing the world's very first practical text-to-speech software. This new vision for Miraikan came out of Asakawa's desire to share the power of science and technology - which has changed her own life - with as many people as possible.

In recent years, words like "diversity" and "inclusion" have become part of the common lexicon. From my own experience, I feel that diversity and inclusion in the future will involve all different kinds of people being able to participate in various activities, including education and employment, in a natural, independent manner - and with everyone around them accepting this as natural as well.

So what we have done at Miraikan is to try to improve accessibility, so that people can experience the power of science and technology in a way that feels natural, regardless of whether or not they have an impairment.

"Touching" the Complexities of the ISS

I will discuss a few of Miraikan's efforts in more detail. First is an effort to produce models that are designed to be touched and assembled, through 3D printing. As I mentioned at the outset, exhibits that rely on information panels or objects designed to be looked at, simply do not "work" for those with visual impairments. So what we did is we prepared a model that could be assembled of the International Space Station (ISS), which is part of our permanent exhibition. The model is made up of many parts, such as the solar arrays, modules for the living area and the area where experiments are conducted, modules that preserve the structure of the station, and operational modules, amongst others. It is designed to convey the complex shape and structure of the ISS through touch alone. It also comes with models of the rockets and space capsules that carry astronauts to and from the ISS. Assembling these gives people an understanding of how the whole process works - from when the rocket is launched to when a manned capsule docks at the ISS. While this project is still in its pilot stages, participants have said that being able to touch the model allowed them to imagine for the first time what the ISS might look like.

The museum is also testing out exhibit tours designed for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Miraikan has what are called "science communicators," who talk to visitors about science and technology. In these new tours, science communicators lead visitors around the exhibits while carrying a transparent display that shows what is being said in textual form in real-time. The museum makes a great effort to be inclusive to individual preferences and skills; for instance, the tour also includes a sign language interpreter, as some with auditory impairments may have difficulties with or simply dislike reading. This project is also still in its pilot stages, but going forward, we intend to hold these tours regularly.

The AI Suitcase Attracts the Attention of Children

There are also verification tests underway for what is called the "AI Suitcase," which would allow those with visual impairments to move about the museum and experience the exhibits on their own. The AI Suitcase is a navigational robot being developed by a corporate consortium for those with visual impairments. It can guide users automatically to whatever location they specify, as long as it is within a predefined area. The robot is encased in a relatively small, carry-on-sized suitcase, but is equipped with the same kind of sensors as in self-driving cars. This means it can safely navigate the museum, going around and avoiding obstacles and other visitors. Miraikan is also testing a feature in which the AI Suitcase reads the explanations for exhibits aloud while moving through the museum, in order to enhance users' experience of the exhibits.

Participant experiencing an exhibit using the AI Suitcase guide.

Miraikan is making these efforts for those with impairments first and foremost, but that is not the only reason. It is likely that in the near future, robots designed to help people - like the AI Suitcase - will become more commonplace, and that they will begin to appear throughout our cities. We imagine that seeing and experiencing how people and new technologies coexist at Miraikan, at this early stage of the roll-out of these robots, will get people thinking about the possibilities and potential issues regarding this technology in the future. They may begin to see it as something more relevant to their lives, and start considering how cities would need to change to accommodate these technologies, or what people around users of these technologies should keep in mind. Children who have actually seen the AI Suitcase in real life have said they want to make these robots with us. It is our hope that these efforts to make Miraikan more accessible will allow all of our visitors to experience what the future may look like and expand their imaginations. We want to build the future with these visitors together.

The goal is to turn Miraikan into a platform (setting) where anybody can participate in activities in a way that feels natural, and experience the power of science and technology, and we will continue working towards that end.

Miraikan is a national science museum that opened in 2001 as a hub to deepen people's understanding of science and technology.

●Video on the Miraikan Accessibility Lab., a technical research lab that aims to support those with visual impairments

Takagi Hironobu

Ph.D. Began working in accessibility R&D at the Tokyo Research Laboratory of IBM Japan Ltd in 1999. Has also served as executive director and director of the Accessibility Lab. at Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation since 2021. His goal is to turn the AI Suitcase, a navigation robot that combines cameras and sensors with AI and robot technologies, and helps those with visual impairments move about independently, into a reality, and release it commercially.

Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation

2-3-6 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo
*See the website for details on opening times, entrance fees, closures, special exhibitions, etc.
Photos courtesy of Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
Translation by Amitt