With the idea that we’d glean some knowledge that would benefit the LightHouse’s foray into tactile cartography and graphics Shen and I attended “Service Based Approach to the Construction and Delivery of Audio Tactile Diagrams”. The PhD thesis of two lads from Dublin City University School of Computing, researchers Declan McMullen and Donal Fitzpatrick, the premise of their project is that “The conveying of graphical materials to visually impaired students has been difficult to achieve… If a learner is operating in a distance-learning environment, or cannot read Braille there is little to no access to graphical material.” And creating tactile graphics
tends to be time consuming and labor intensive. To answer this need, they’ve devised a server based model for, well… the Construction and Delivery of Audio Tactile Diagrams.
The culmination of years of concentrated effort and computing expertise, as a layperson catching a glimpse of their project for the first time a good deal of what they were describing went over my head, but as far as usability, for a teacher, say, needing to provide materials to a student, the process is straightforward. What I took away, in simplistic terms, is this: servers serve as the repositories of Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) images. There are also directories of content. The web-based interface lets the user wed images with content and generate any number of outputs including DAISY and Swell Paper. For example, you log on, search for a stock image (a map of the US, or human anatomy), search for content you wish to overlay (US Census Data, election results, the liver, etc.) and then apply the content and labels. Hit submit and an interactive graphic materializes on your computer. Clicking on a feature results in audio feedback revealing the nature of that item (“The capital of California is Sacramento. The population of CA is 30 million…”). Image and content are given unique identifiers and are mapped to each other, so the original remains unmodified for future reuse. Pretty cool. Users can also contribute images and content to share with others. Indeed, for such a system to be effective it will have to be adopted by many users. The challenge of proposing a new standard is that a significant majority must adopt it for it to become a standard. Aside from having to create a defensible thesis, other challenges will have to be sorted out or they will become problems. Calibration for instance. It’s one thing to generate a graphic on a screen, but output that is compatible wth a multitude of devices and methods requires calibration, because slight changes between formats can cause data to shift. And there is the question of precision. A finger tip is sensitive, but not as accurate a pointer as a mouse cursor, which can target a very discrete location. Send the same graphic to be embossed and that tiny point may be too small for the finger to discern. There has to be a way to enlarge fine detail as you scale the diagram for tactile output. Still, all in all, fine work. Overall we’re very impressed.