Sep 17, 2021
This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is
making life better for people with vision loss.
Close your eyes. Raise your hands. Reach out and
touch the nearest surface. What are you touching? A desktop, a
leather steering wheel cover, a porcelain cup, a plastic keyboard?
Our sense of touch and the way in which we interpret the materials
in our environment are fundamental to our experience of the
This episode’s big idea is the new developments in
tactile technologies. You’re probably familiar with one of the
oldest technologies, Braille, which was invented in 1824 by Louis
Braille, a Frenchman who was blind by the age of three. Braille,
which has undergone numerous refinements since its invention, has
led the way in helping people who are blind read, write, and
interact with the world around them. But as useful as Braille is,
it has its limits: Braille is used for text; it can’t convey
images. Two individuals who are working to develop technologies
that will one day help people with vision impairment to experience
images and graphics are material scientist Dr. Julia R. Greer from
Caltech and physicist Dr. John Gardner from Oregon State
The Big Takeaways:
- Did you know most people who are blind still don’t
have access to good graphic descriptions? When Dr. John Gardner
suddenly and unexpectedly lost his eyesight, he realized he could
not see wave graphs in his research. He was unable to teach the
concepts in the lectures to his students because they were too
inexperienced to know how to interpret the graphs. He had to fax
his research to a select number of experts to help him interpret
the graphical data accurately. Eventually, Dr. Gardner came to
develop a product called Tiger Software that, working with an
embosser, enabled him to read with his hands — and ultimately carry
on his work.
- Braille books are expensive and they take up large
amounts of space. A normal algebra book could be 50 volumes in
Braille. Dr. Gardner’s software has been life-changing for many
students who are blind and eager to learn. It produces tactile
graphics that can be perceived by touch. So instead of students
relying only on Braille text or audio descriptions of images, they
can use this technology as a complement to those tools by using
special printers that create graphics, charts, and images that can
be “read” by touch.
- There are a few tactical tools people who are blind
can use: Braille books (which take up too much space), Braille
embossers (which offer dynamic printing of Braille but not a
complete experience), Braille and tactile embossers (like Dr.
Gardner’s program), and refreshable Braille displays (downloadable
content like ebooks in braille, but which are expensive).
- Promising research is coming out of the lab of Dr.
Gardner’s colleague, Dr. Julia Greer. Her team discovered and is
now developing a special electroactive polymer, a substance that
exhibits a change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric
field. They hope to use it to create raised tactile images on a
plane. It has potential beyond Braille displays and could one day
be used for students, architects, artists, scientists, engineers,
or anyone who needs tactile representations of visual data.
- “We went back to Braille embossing and we had to
develop a much higher resolution embossing format, and one of my
students and I invented a new technology..” — Dr. John Gardner
- “I need to touch it. Touching is like seeing it.
Hearing about a complicated diagram is not the same as seeing it
with my fingers.” — Audrey Schading
- “It seems to be a natural connection to have this
polyelectrolyte gel that swells in response to an applied field.
Now that we have it, we can shape it into a 3D shape of some kind.”
— Dr. Julia R. Greer