MFA Thesis

Paleo Journey: An Interactive Paleolithic Cave Art Experience

Using the User Experience (UX) Design Process to Develop An Interactive and Immersive Paleolithic Cave Art Exhibit Suitable for Children Between Five (5) and Seven (7) Years Old.


Most European caves containing Paleolithic cave art paintings (dating from approximately 10,000 – 50,000 years BP) are no longer accessible to the general public, and their visitor centers often require lengthy travel for tourists. In addition, the interactivity associated with these exhibits largely focus upon computer screens, and not a tactile interface. This Thesis project seeks to create a prototype of a tactile interface on a mock cave surface using projection mapping and motion tracking.

In developing this exhibit, the user experience (UX) design process was used as a methodology for defining, researching and co-designing for a particular user segment. While this Thesis only focuses on the users between the ages of five (5) to seven (7) years old, it can be used as a model for other user segments.

In researching and testing prototypes with children from this age cohort, it was determined that young children have visual-spatial development issues that hinder their ability to identify common animals in static cave art such as lions, rhinos and bison. After viewing the same cave art animals in motion graphics, 100% of all children were able to correctly identify the animal types.


Charcoal painted panel showing Ice Age animals of southern Europe including Horses, Aurochs and Rhinos at Chauvet Cave in Ardreche, France. (~25,000 BP)


Charcoal painted panel of Rhinos at Chauvet cave in Ardreche France was an early attempt at proto-animation by artists whose dime flickering flame simulated the appearance of movement. (~25,000 BC)

Problem Statement

A group of children visiting the Grotte Chauvet 2 in Ardreche, France


Replica panel from Grotte Chauvet 2 in Ardreche, France

Due to their fragile nature, and the need for preservation, most Paleolithic Cave Art found in the caves of the Southern European continent (modern day France, Spain, Germany and Italy) are not accessible to the general public. As a result, models of the caves have been made into museum exhibits in locations near the original cave sites such as Lascaux in and Chauvet caves in France. (Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication de France 2010) (Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication de France 2016) While this helps to bring these magnificent artworks to visitors, these exhibits are stationary, and most do not travel, thereby limiting access to an immersive experience only to those with the means to travel to Europe to visit the cave museums and visitor centers.

To help bridge this gap, many of these cave sites have online tours available, however they lack both immersive and tactile qualities that visitors, especially children, generally report as being the most preferred and engaging type of museum exhibits.

As an added complication, young children between the ages of five (5) and seven (7) have a wide range of developmental variability including visualspatial limitations, abstract thinking limitations, and reading abilities which can inhibit their ability to appreciate the artwork or put the artwork into context. As a result, this segment of exhibit visitors quickly lose any interest in the exhibit.

User Research

Debra Gelman has been working with children in developing interfaces since 1993. In her book Designing For Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning, she advises dividing user groups for children by age:

2 — 4 years old
4 — 6 years old
6 — 8 years old
8 — 10 years old
10 — 12 years old
(Gelman 2014)

Subsequent research and experience working directly with children viewing cave art in this Thesis Project has shown, however, that a refinement of these categories will be necessary in order to accommodate the unique visual-spatial developmental needs of children between the ages of 5 — 7 years old.

World of Inquiry School (WOIS) #58 – Rochester, NY

The administration, faculty, parents and students of the 5th, 3rd, and Kindergarten classes at the World of Inquiry, School #58 in Rochester, New York agreed to participate in the process of researching and designing an interactive cave art exhibit.

All work, research and computer interface testing was performed in the classrooms, and under the guidance and supervision of New York State certified teachers Meghan Delahanty-Reddington, Amy Martin, Elizabeth Dauksha, and Principal Sheelarani Webster. Per the agreement, students were not allowed to be video recorded or photographed, and no personally identifiable information was allowed to be collected. The participating teachers selected students that represented a broad representation of the classroom’s socio-emotional, racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as educational aptitude.

During the initial information gathering and research phase of the project (January — May of 2017), students engaged in card sorting and were interviewed in pairs and presented with open ended survey questions so as to promote discussion between the students. This allowed for more open dialogue as the students would engage in conversation with each other rather than “performing” for an adult as suggested by Steve Portigal in his book, Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. Initial Interview Questions and Developmental Discovery Informing the Direction of the Thesis

The initial survey and card sorting activities were designed to gauge awareness and interest in Paleolithic Cave art, interaction preferences, and preferences for museum environments.

The children were asked to provide a level of interest using a Likert scale (ranging from ‘Very Interesting’ to ‘Boring’) for various types of exhibits typically found in a museum (Egyptian Mummies, Explore a Pawnee Lodge, Explore a Paleolithic Cave, Medieval European Armor, Traditional Native American Dress, and Tribal Masks of the Pacific Northwest). Children were also asked about their experiences visiting museums, zoos, and other cultural attractions. This followed traditional User Experience (UX) best practices. (Spencer 2009) (Buley 2013)

This survey fell directly in line with common known psycho-social child development patterns for children in this age cohort. (C. Wood 2007) Younger children (Kindergarten) were interested in more concrete types of exhibits such as Egyptian mummies and Medieval armor. Older children (3rd and 5th Graders) who have a more expanded view of the world and greater abstract thinking abilities were interested in the social and cultural exhibits.

In general, positive interest towards potential exhibits varied depending upon exposure and familiarity with the subject matter. Many of these topics were chosen with the knowledge that some of the potential exhibits were previously studied in the school curriculum.

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Card Sorting Data measuring children's interest in various potential exhibits including Mummies, Pawnee Lodges, Medieval European Armor, Traditional Native American Dress, Tribal Masks of the Pacific Northwest, and Upper Paleolithic Cave Art.

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Sample data results from questionnaire asking students about familiarity, interest and preferences for various types of museum exhibits.

Complicating Factor: Visual-Spatial Development Issues in Kindergarteners

User Persona created after user research phase. Due to the unique nature of the user cohort, I focused on user reading level, psycho-social development, familiarity with subject matter, and interests.


While there are many commonalities among all children in this particular cohort, there are also great differences and enormous differences in psycho-social development.


My research revealed that this particular age cohort is most influenced by that which is tactile and familiar to them. Topics that they have been introduced to with great frequency are preferred over topics that are new, unfamilar and abstract.

In looking at the pictures of cave art with the children, some unexpected comments came up over and over with the Kindergarteners (all of whom were 5 years old) that did not arise at all with the 3rd (mostly 7 — 8 years old) or 5th graders (mostly 10 — 11 years old). The children in the Kindergarten often expressed great difficulty in deciphering the type of animals in the art (ie. rhinos, horses, bulls and deer). Instead, many children responded that they did not see any animals at all or else responded with incorrect answers. These stray comments would effectively change the course of this Thesis project and form the basis for the interface and interaction design patterns developed.

In discussing this anomaly with veteran current and former Kindergarten teachers Gail Garrett, Meghan Delahanty-Reddington, and Sheelarani Webster, all three agreed that their personal experiences working with children led them to believe that there are unique visual-spatial perception issues related to child development in Kindergarten age children.

Additional research on this topic revealed that developmental psychologists had, in fact, identified that between the ages of five (5) and seven (7) years of age, children’s brains undergo an intense development of visual-spatial perception. (Bezrukikh, Morozova, and Terebova 2009) (Bezrukikh and Terebova 2009) (Bütün Ayhan et al. 2015) In the responses received from the Kindergarteners at World of Inquiry, it appeared that the specific perception issues related to the texture of the rock against the artwork as well as an understanding of the line art as a representation of a known object. In graphic design terms, this would seem to relate to the gestalt concepts of figure-ground and closure as well as dominance and priority.

With this new information, the focus of the Thesis project now included a new set of complications for this specific user group. How do you teach children about Cave Art when their natural development limits their ability to see the images?

A Solution Within the Art Itself?

At another point working with the Kindergarteners in the Spring of 2017 at World of Inquiry, the entire class of approximately 20 children were presented with 11” x 17” copies of a complex cave art scene from a cavern known as “The Sanctuary” of Trois Frères cave located in Ariège, France. The image is a disarming scene with different animals in various positions, and no discernible “up” or “down” to the scene.

Children were instructed to work together as a group and circle any identifiable images they saw in the reproduction drawing. Adult facilitators assisted by writing notes on the papers as to what type of animal the children found. Most children found this activity very difficult, however, often one child would identify an animal and point it out to other children. When the specific image was pointed out, other children would agree and could then make out the image.

This activity reinforced the assumption that complex scenes of static cave art would likely prove to be frustrating and ultimately futile in engaging young visitors.

While thinking about the issues of perception in the user cohort, additional research into cave art continued and and uncovered recent work by anthropoligists Marc Azéma and Florent Rivère, who theorize that many cave art images suggest an early attempt at animation on the part of the cave artists. Azéma and Rivère state in their writings that the flickering glow of torch lighting would provide an optical illusion that cave art images were in motion. This, they argue, is the reason why many quadrupedal animals were drawn with more than four legs extended in various positions of a walk / run cycle. (Azéma 2008) (Azéma and Rivère 2012b) (Azéma and Rivère 2012a)

This line of research led to an insight that perhaps the children would better respond to the artwork if it were animated. Perhaps an animation of the animals walking or running could force the perception and allow the children to see the artworks. It would also make an interactive cave exhibit more interesting to see animals in action rather than stationary images.

Design Solution: Interactive Cave Experience

In conducting my research with the Kindergarteners, it became very clear that social and emotional factors would be very important factors to overcome levels of disinterest and unfamiliarity with the subject matter. In addition, many children expressed fears about being in enclosed dark spaces, so lighting and physical design issues would need to be considered so that children would not become frightened. Because young children are ruled by emotions more than anything else, their emotional reactions to the environment would be the most important factor to ensure a successful experience.

After much iteration, I finally arrived at a design solution of creating an interactive space using projection mapping. This would be a complex system of creating interactive animal animations triggered by a tactile physical interface projected and mapped onto the exhibit walls designed to mimic the rock found in the caves of Southern Europe.


Animation walk cycle study from the classic Edward Muybridge photographs done in the late 1800s at the advent of photography.

Exhibit Design

Concept design for a Cave Art Exhibit. Note the wide and open spaces to prevent chidren from feeling clausterphobic. The lights from the projectors would provide ample ambient light to prevent children from feeling the space was too dark.

Projection Mapping test of horse anumation sequence.

Final Film for MFA Thesis Show

Exhibit Branding
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