by Stacie Dubnow
From the Editor: Stacie joined the staff of the National Federation of the Blind two years ago after working as a trial attorney in private practice with her father for thirty years. In her previous work she represented plaintiffs in complex business litigations ranging from securities fraud to illegal malpractice. She was also active in filing and pursuing consumer protection class actions.
As readers will observe, Stacie not only possesses a fine legal mind, but her energy and intellect take her into new fields where she learns quickly and is able to share that information in a way all of us can understand. Here is what she says:
On October 11 through 12, 2018, the National Federation of the Blind hosted a symposium on the use of tactile graphics by blind and low-vision individuals in education and careers. Experts from across the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, and Italy gathered in Baltimore at the Jernigan Institute to share their knowledge, innovative products and technology, and ideas for future development on the tactile graphics frontier. The educators, scientists, museum professionals, artists, and others who presented and facilitated workshops during the symposium demonstrated creativity and exciting innovation in the field of tactile graphics. This article discusses five cutting-edge products either in existence or development that have the potential to significantly improve the everyday lives of blind and low vision people in travel, education, careers, and their enjoyment of the arts.
Sighted people typically do not recognize the importance of tactile graphics because vision is their primary means for consuming information. The sighted are able to access most information through their eyes—paintings and sculptures in a museum, the pages of a book on a Kindle device, graphs and diagrams on a computer or page of a textbook, or a map on their phones. However, when tactile art or graphics are added to the visual representations, the multimodal experience enhances their ability to interpret the information. For the blind and low vision, tactile graphics are the primary means for consuming information. Tactile graphics allow the blind to access the same information as the sighted, experience arts and culture, travel independently, learn independently in school, and otherwise live their lives fully.
Brian MacDonald, president of the National Braille Press (NBP), aptly explains:
In the digital world that we are living in today, there is still a significant gap to solving accessible needs for digital Braille and digital, refreshable tactile graphics.
Having a high quality, low-cost, full-page Braille and tactile graphic display would revolutionize the world by providing blind and low-vision people instant access to digital tactile content at an affordable price. This would be extremely helpful for adults in the workplace and for students needing accessible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) materials that often need multiple lines of Braille to more effectively read complex equations or problems and tactile graphics to supplement the information.
During the 2018 Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers Symposium, Mr. MacDonald previewed exciting research in which he is engaged with the National Braille Press to develop a full-page Braille/tactile graphic tablet—a Kindle-like device with a tactile surface that can be read by a blind person using Braille. NewHaptics—a company with connections to the University of Michigan, reports it is working toward the first truly affordable technology that can display multiple lines of Braille and/or high-quality tactile graphics in a single format. Current refreshable Braille displays limit access only to a single line of Braille, making it impossible to use these devices to show relationships such as columns and indentation, which is particularly important in mathematics. Think about adding two four-digit numbers if you couldn’t have read it a column at a time.
However, the new display in development will be a full-page tablet that allows for tactile graphs, diagrams, spreadsheets, and other spatially displayed information. Unlike the traditional refreshable Braille displays now on the market—which rely on piezoelectrics to raise Braille pins—this new Braille tablet is driven by microfluidics, which uses fluid—air or liquid—to inflate small bubbles that in turn push tactile pins up and down. This approach leverages unique manufacturing techniques that will be considerably more affordable than existing technologies and, once available, useful in school and the workplace.1
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and Orbit Research have collaborated to develop an additional groundbreaking technology. The Graphiti is a dynamic tactile display that consists of an array of moving pins of varying heights that can be touched with the user’s fingers to access graphics such as diagrams, bar charts, floor-plans, and topographical maps. Dr. Gina Spagnoli, the founder of Orbit Research, explains: “The variable-height capability [of] our Tactuator technology will allow blind users to experience and interact with graphics like never before—live and in three dimensions. For the first time, a blind user will be able to create graphics in digital form, enter them into a computing device, review and edit them, and exchange such graphics with others.”2
During the National Federation of the Blind’s 2018 symposium, Ken Perry, a software engineer with APH, and Venkatesh Chari, president and CTO of Orbit Research, demonstrated the Graphiti software and hardware features that enable users to view and edit graphics by touch, scroll and zoom images, and use the touch interface to draw and erase graphics. By connecting the Graphiti to a laptop, they showed how it was possible to create 3D objects using the laptop’s software. Not only can the Graphiti be connected to computers, tablets, smart phones, and the Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator, but an HDMI port lets the user connect the Graphiti to any device that has a video display output, which then identifies the Graphiti as a display monitor.
What this means is that a blind student can connect a tactile monitor—the Graphiti—into instruments like telescopes, microscopes, computers, or talking calculators and see in real time whatever is at the other end of that device, whether it is a planet in an astronomy class, a specimen in a biology class, or a graph in a math class. The product provides blind and low-vision individuals with access to the same information in real time as their sighted peers. Offering “real time depiction of dynamic content … students will be able to immediately see the graph on the tactile screen. Textbooks in math and science contain thousands of graphics. Graphiti provides a path toward delivering textbooks with graphics, electronically.”3 Other valuable features include a haptic, or vibrating, feedback interface, an SD-card slot, and the ability by the user to “draw” on the display of pins using fingertips, which raise the pins along the path traced, as well as push an object created by raised pins on the display to physically move it.
Additionally, Dr. Luca Brayda, a researcher at the Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department of the Italian Institute of Technology, is also investigating the use of tactile feedback using an array of movable pins to display spatial information to blind and low-vision individuals. Dr. Brayda presented research at the 2018 symposium on a product in development called a BlindPad, a portable tablet that translates visual information into tactile representations using a grid of magnetically controlled bumps that lock in an up or down position and can vibrate or animate. The tactile display becomes a bas relief that can be understood using the hands and allows for both static and moving patterns. Not only can it display spatial information such as the layout of a room, neighborhood, or intersection, but it also makes accessible through touch information such as in-class diagrams, graphs, or geometry problems for students.
During the symposium, Dr. Brayda described recent research investigating the effectiveness of the BlindPad for blind and low-vision participants for orientation and mobility tasks. Study participants haptically explored a pin-array map of a room that marked a target destination. A control group and experimental group then entered the room on three consecutive occasions and attempted to reach the target destination. The control group used a static map (the original tactile map), and the experimental group used a changing tactile map that not only showed the original map and target destination, but also the position the participant reached each prior occasion. The group using the animated map significantly out-performed the group using a static map, demonstrating “that learning spatial layouts through updated tactile feedback on programmable displays outperforms conventional procedures on static tactile maps. This could represent a powerful tool for navigation, both in rehabilitation and everyday life contexts, improving spatial abilities and promoting independent living for VI people.”4 Although the BlindPad is still in development, it represents an exciting breakthrough in the creation of an affordable, portable tactile tablet for the blind.
Ultraviolet (or UV) printing is another technological innovation that rapidly is improving the accessibility of spatial information to blind and low-vision individuals. The raised nature of UV print is making possible low-cost museum and gallery signage, descriptive labels, and illustrations in Braille books. During the NFB Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers symposium, Steve Landau, president and founder of Touch Graphics Inc., a company that produces tactile graphics and touchable 3D models, explained how large format flatbed UV printers are replacing vacuum thermoforming as the most efficient way to produce high quality tactile graphics like raised line and textured maps and diagrams to explain spatial concepts to blind and low-vision students. UV printers create tactile signage, Braille, and other raised or textured images by dispensing ink that cures immediately when exposed to bright ultraviolet light, producing precise three-dimensional effects.
Steve Landau expounds:
These printers can produce precise, consistent, and durable raised lines, textures, and Braille directly on paper or plastic substrates, rigid boards, and flexible sheets. Most importantly, these printers make it possible to print over the tactile image with high resolution visuals that are perfectly aligned and registered with the raised lines, textures, and Braille. Since the new generation of UV printers can produce both tactile and visual images on the same machine, the difficult problem of lining up vacuum formed and in-print images is now solved.
As a result of the newest UV printers, Mr. Landau reports that universally accessible floor plans, signs, and tactile interpretations of visual art are being produced that can be used by everyone. By way of example, using UV technology, Touch Graphics has produced two new tactile map units installed at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, a ledger-sized foldable tactile map for the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a tactile museum guide for the recently opened New York Transit Museum. Some of these tactile maps, as well as various museum exhibits, also include audio in tactile-bas relief, speaking when touched. A tactile replica of a painting at the San Diego Museum of Art, interpreted by Touch Graphics with the assistance of tactile artist Ann Cunningham, describes the still life Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber by artist Sánchez Cotán; the audio captures in words what is visually depicted in vivid detail as the visitor’s hands move across the raised and textured surfaces. As a result of innovations like these, blind and low-vision individuals not only are able to orient themselves and travel independently through museums and other venues, but also they can experience art and culture on an equal basis with all other visitors.
Similar to the paintings and sculptures that are becoming more accessible to blind and low-vision visitors at museums, techniques are being developed to increase access to archaeological artifacts in museums. Advances in 3D printing (additive manufacturing technology)5 are making it easier to produce replicas of artifacts that can be experienced through touch as well as vision.
New digital technologies are profoundly changing the way people interact with ancient treasures. … 3D scanning, printing, and carving technology has made it possible to recreate objects and architecture with a high degree of precision, but in a form that allows visitors to have a tactile experience with these materials. While useful and interesting to everyone, these technologies are especially significant for sight-impaired visitors. For the first time, artifacts from archaeological sites, large and small, can be encountered directly through the sense of touch.6
During the 2018 symposium, archaeologist and independent museum professional Dr. Cheryl Fogle-Hatch described a recent case study involving the creation of high-quality 3D printed replicas of stone spear tips that are part of the collections of the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory. Among other topics, she discussed design considerations relating to scanning original artifacts to obtain accurate information about them to produce high-quality replicas, as well as the importance of attaching a QR (quick response) code to replicas, which allows visitors to scan the code on their smartphones to obtain electronic Braille, audio, and text descriptions about the original artifacts. This case study provides promise for future applications of 3D scanning and printing, which already is successfully being used to create human tissue and organs in design and manufacturing, and—as discussed here—in the arts. The application of 3D printing in the field of education is particularly exciting since both sighted and blind children now should be able to learn subjects such as chemistry and biology through the use of tactile representations (printed molecule models and organs such as the human heart).
The field of tactile graphics is rapidly evolving in an effort to keep pace with emerging technology and society’s increased dependence on that technology in virtually every facet of our lives. Although technological advances sometimes create accessibility barriers for blind and low-vision people, such advances also sometimes hold the solutions for breaking down accessibility barriers. As the overview of the above-described products demonstrates, innovations in software and hardware, digitization, pneumatics, UV printing, and 3D printing are enabling blind and low-vision people to meaningfully experience art and culture in museums, travel more independently, and access the same learning as sighted children in school. Although significant progress has been made on the tactile graphics front, we must continue to work together to promote not only the further development of tactile graphics materials and production methods, but tactile fluency by our young blind and low-vision children so that they learn at an early age how to effectively interpret and use tactile graphics both in the classroom and the world at large.
2. American Printing House for the Blind, 2016, American Printing House for the Blind and Orbit Research Announce the World’s First Affordable Refreshable Tactile Graphics Display [Press Release], https://www.aph.org/pr/aph-and-orbit-research-announce-the-worlds-first-affordable-refreshable-tactile-graphics-display/.
3. American Printing House for the Blind, 2016, American Printing House for the Blind and Orbit Research Announce the World’s First Affordable Refreshable Tactile Graphics Display [Press Release], https://www.aph.org/pr/aph-and-orbit-research-announce-the-worlds-first-affordable-refreshable-tactile-graphics-display/.
4. Brayda, L., Leo, F., Baccelliere, C., Ferrari, E., & Vigini, C. (2018). Updated Tactile Feedback with a Pin Array Matrix Helps Blind People to Reduce Self-Location Errors. Micromachines, 9(351), p. 1.
5. “3D printers print objects from a digital template to a physical 3-dimensional physical object. The printing is done layer by layer (Additive manufacturing) using plastic, metal, nylon, and over a hundred other materials.” Mpofu, T., Mawere, C., & Mukosera, M. (2014). The Impact and Application of 3D Printing Technology. International Journal of Science and Research 3(6).
6. Accessible Archaeology for the Blind and Partially Sighted. (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2019, from http://digitalarchaeology.org.uk/accessible-archaeology.