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On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts

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 world.

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 University.


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


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