ArtEater project: computer art for all

10 Oct 2023

Senior citizens and people with cognitive impairment are often left behind when it comes to digitalization. LMU professor of art education Anja Mohr is adapting her creative software for these target groups.

What digital brush and paint provide: Children have already tested ArtEater. | © Anja Mohr

When Anja Mohr got her elderly neighbor to test her creative software, the 85-year-old did not like the stickers available in the program. “She wanted flowers and birds that she could put on greeting cards.” Clearly a generational issue – for the LMU professor originally developed the ArtEater image painting and design software for elementary school children. And they liked using stickers and incorporating them in their pictures. By contrast, Mohr’s neighbor – who was rather media-savvy, it should be noted – wanted other design elements when she sat down at her computer to create her first pictures.

“Children, senior citizens, and people with cognitive impairment belong to the ‘forgotten,’ little-noticed target groups often left behind by the onward march of digitalization,” explains Anja Mohr, Professor of Fine Arts and Art Education and Director of the Institute of Art Education at LMU. This is something that Mohr, who is fascinated by the subject of how analog and digital art can mutually stimulate and inspire each other, wants to change with her projects. The “ArtEater” creative software she developed for children will now be validated as part of a funding program by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and further developed in suitable application formats for a broader target group. And that means embracing potential users such as Mohr’s elderly neighbour.

Anja Mohr had already researched analog and digital children’s drawings for her Magister thesis – and subsequently in her doctoral dissertation as well. “One aspect was the childish penchant for collecting things: Whether this is expressed by gathering stones in the woods or cat pictures on the internet doesn’t make all that much of a difference.” When the image editing program she worked with back then was unexpectedly taken off the market, she responded by creating one of her own as part of a German Research Foundation (DFG) project: ArtEater. The program allows children to create their own pictures, but also to collect and edit external images – and to obtain creative opportunities that are not possible with pen and paper. “It was the first bona fide art education project that the DFG funded,” recalls Mohr. Implemented by Media Informatics staff at LMU and tested in elementary schools, the browser-based, platform-independent program is “a cross between the super-easy Paint and the much too complex Photoshop.”

Clouds in perspective

Instead of having one level – like Paint – the program has many user-oriented levels. Mohr explains that this is “brilliant for artistic-experimental work, because users can keep coming back to and revising individual elements and undo steps.” She remembers a boy in elementary school who made the clouds smaller while doing a digital painting, as they seemed too close visually to him and he wanted to suggest greater depth. “You can’t make such revisions with wax crayons.” Anja Mohr was astonished: “It’s thought that children develop the ability to create effects of depth and perspective only during their teenage years.” As such, the digital tools could precipitate a “quantum leap in new teaching and learning possibilities.”

To open up these benefits to the elderly and people with cognitive impairment, the art educator decided to validate ArtEater for this broader target group. To do this, she obtained funding through the “Validation of the technological and social innovation potential of scientific research –VIP+” program, which is financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The goal of the “ArtEater in Live Test (AiLt)” project, which has received 930,000 euros in funding, is to analyze Mohr’s previous research results in a five-person team within a timeframe of three years – and to bring a new version of the software for previously overlooked target groups to market. The success of her application, with the support of the Research and Technology Transfer unit at LMU, broke new ground: It was the first time an LMU project in the domain of the humanities or the cultural or social sciences had obtained an award of this size.In the project, which has just got underway, the researchers visit retirement homes, services designed to help elderly people such as “Digital Help Munich,” special-needs schools, and sheltered workshops and art studios for people with intellectual disabilities, with the aim of addressing the widest possible range of capabilities within the target groups. For example, the study participants with cognitive impairment include people with behavioral syndromes, learning disabilities, and social or genetic disorders, while elderly participants include people who are still very fit and others who have motor deficits or incipient dementia.

License or spin-off. “Both things are very unusual in the world of art education and indeed in the humanities generally,” says Anja Mohr. | © Stephan Schaar

Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research

As part of a special teaching concept, the participants work with the creative software and are then asked about its usability: What did they like? What did they not like? Does the software motivate them to create more designs? Is it fun to use? “We want to find out whether ArtEater is effective, efficient, and interoperable.” With various versions of the software, the program is to be adapted to the different target groups. “For people with poor eyesight, we might need to make the buttons bigger and strongly differentiate their appearance, while for certain people with cognitive impairment we may need to reduce the complexity – because too many functions can be overwhelming or distracting.”

It was a stipulation of the BMBF funding that there should be external mentors to accompany the VIP+ project from the perspective of their subject-matter expertise. To this end, Anja Mohr was able to recruit business consultant Silke Beaucamp and mathematician and software developer Dr. Ingo Dahn. If the validation is successful, Mohr will seek to license the software or found a spin-off. “Both things are very unusual in the world of art education and indeed in the humanities generally.” The transfer of her research into the market will undoubtedly be aided by its strong practical focus, with the software as a concrete product. “As a principle, however – and many researchers in the humanities are unaware of this – BMBF funds not only products, but also approaches, processes, and methods.”

Another reason why Anja Mohr sees the prospects for the transfer of her research as promising is its relevance for neglected target groups. It was often the small steps, whether resizing clouds, inserting stickers, or saving images, that made the new users more comfortable with the computer. These newly acquired skills could help mitigate “the digital divide in society.”

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