Information graphics–diagrams, plans, maps, plots and charts–are widespread in written communication. The ability to comprehend, use and create these graphics is an important skill that most of us take for granted. However, for those who are blind or have severe vision impairment, access to such graphics is severely limited, restricting effective participation in the workplace, limiting educational opportunities, especially in art and design, mathematics, and science and technology, and constraining enjoyment of popular media including the web.
The project I am involved with seeks to:
- Better understand the current landscape of provision of accessible graphics in the university context
- Develop processes for improving access to graphics
- Investigate and prototype technology-based solutions for the development and provision of accessible graphics.
Working with Prof. Kim Marriott, Dr. Cagatay Goncu and Leona Holloway, we are investigating this important area through survey and interview of key stakeholder and experimenting with new technologies to improve the access to graphics for vision-impaired students across tertiary education. Below are details of a number of the sub-projects that are underway.
Accessible Maps Using Electronically Enhanced 3D Printing
How can 3D printing, combined with low-cost computing and electronics, help the vision impaired see the world? This project investigates how 3D printing can be augmented with computing devices such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino along with basic electronics to create multi-sensory accessible maps.
Aiding mobility is crucial for people with vision-impairments. Mobility is often supported by guides who will help familiarise them with an environment, or by the presence of assistance such as a guide dog. Unfortunately, the provision of accessible maps to support this is limited at best.
With the growing adoption of 3D printing and increased access to printers, 3D printing has become a viable option for use in the creation of accessible graphics. Reasonably static graphics, such as maps, prove to be ideal candidates for the use of 3D printing in the development of accessible graphics. When used with maps, 3D printing can help build mental models of the layout of a space. Maps, however, often contain much more information than can be easily conveyed by the 3D print itself. Braille labels for example require such considerable space for ease of reading that they are not able to convey much information. 3D prints also may not be able to easily convey information about the insides of buildings.
To address this, 3D prints have been augmented with simple touch sensors and Arduino technology to enable touch-triggered audio feedback. This feedback can be static, such as providing basic building information, or dynamic, detailing time-dependent information. The inclusion of touch sensors can also facilitate other actions such as way finding. Initial testing suggests that this approach may be crucial in helping the vision-impaired community orient themselves with a space and gain both spatial awareness and key location-based information.
Outcomes from this project will not only aid in the development and wider distribution of accessible maps, but may also be incorporated into the creation of accessible versions of other types of important graphics.
3D Printing For Bridging The Gap From Concrete To Abstract
This project is also looking at the broader use of 3D printing for conveying all different types of graphical information, not just maps. This includes graphs and charts, tables, coordinate-based diagrams, 2D representations of 3D objects, and many others. We are investigating how 3D printing can be used to create more meaningful accessible versions for all vision-impaired persons, from children to adults.
One major research question being tackled is how more abstract representations of objects, such as flat 2D representations of 3D objects, can be taught to someone with a vision impairment. For example, top down views such as floor plans, side-on views of buildings and other everyday objects, and other such representations, often do not translate meaningfully with “traditional” tactile diagramming techniques. We are examining how 3D printed representations can begin to bridge this gap, either as replacements or as a stepping stone in the learning process of being able to use tactile versions of these abstract representations.
To date, work has been done with floor plans as well as iconic shapes, such as the Sydney Opera House and the map of Australia. Future work will look at the broader challenge of how 3D printing can be used in moving learners from the concrete to the abstract.
The genesis of this overarching project was the amazing work of Dr. Cagatay Goncu and Prof. Kim Marriott on their GraVVITAS project. GraVVITAS is short for Graphics Viewer using Vibration Interactive Touch and Speech. GraVVITAS is a multi-modal presentation device that uses touch screen and haptic feedback technologies to give blind people access to graphics. A data glove equipped with vibrating motors provides haptic feedback when the finger is over a graphic element on the tablet computer. GraVVITAS also provides speech and 3D non-speech audio feedback to help the user with navigation. This project formed the core of Dr. Goncu’s PhD and his work in research, development, and testing of the system is ongoing.
The project is continuing to develop new computer technologies that are designed to work on an iPad and will (at last) provide people who are blind or have severe vision impairment with fast, inexpensive access to a wide variety of information graphics at home, at school and at work. You can read more about Chatai’s work here: http://gravvitas.infotech.monash.edu/