Thoughts on Tactile Images

When I first moved to St. Petersburg, I made friends with an O&M instructor named Rosey.  She and I would go out to restaurants, beaches, canoeing, to movies and shopping.  One day, while we sat awaiting our meal in a local Chinese joint, she asked me why I touched so few things.  I didn’t realize that my behavior fell out of the norm and felt a bit self-conscious.  Rosey used the third person at our table, an old friend named Mike, as an example.  She pointed out that Mike touches virtually everything in his surroundings to get a lay of the land and to figure out where different items sat on the table.

Mike spoke up and suggested that the difference in our behavior might result from his lifelong blindness and my having acquired my blindness at age 36 or so.  Which brings us back to what seems like the topic of the week at Blind Confidential, different perceptions between those with congenital versus acquired blindness.  This topic is yet another for which I have no empirical evidence, a sample size of two, one of which is me and no controls or other tools that help keep researchers objective.  Hence, do not draw any deep conclusions from this story but, rather, enjoy it and, maybe, use it as a topic for research on your own.

Mike continued the conversation by describing how he had always touched as many things in his surroundings that he could find.  He told us that his parents would take him out to stores so he could familiarize himself with items he would hear mentioned that they didn’t have at home.  I, on the other hand, learned to avoid touching things, especially in stores, “You’ll break it and then we’ll have to buy it,” my mother or grandmother would reprimand.  So, perhaps more so than others who grew up sighted, I had a bit of a phobia about touching things.

My tactile sense let me use a cane for pedestrian travel and Rosey, a certified O&M instructor, described my mobility skills as “excellent.”  I could feel all of the Braille characters but not always know what they meant.  I could tell salt from pepper based upon their relative weight and had a few other tactile skills that I employed frequently.  Touching everything around me, though, had never come to mind.

Most of my life in the AT industry focused exclusively on audio interfaces to the exclusion of things tactile.  I would read an occasional Braille label and I enjoyed feeling my way around a tactile map of the US in the HJ test lab, I especially liked that the Braille on it claimed that two states were named Utah and none were called Colorado.  I’ve read articles about tactile graphics, haptics and other concepts that rely on one’s sense of touch and played around with some force feedback stuff but didn’t ever study it thoroughly.

Over the years, though, I have started picking up many of Mike’s habits.  I find myself touching almost everything on a restaurant table, feeling different textures of wallpaper and wood carved walls and I found myself really enjoying all of the great tactile models of various creatures found around our state while touring the excellent Natural History Museum on the University of Florida campus.

My membership in the Adaptive Graphics list (hosted on Free Lists) has exposed me to all sorts of concepts regarding tactile graphics but my participation has almost entirely fallen into the audio categories of discussion.  Recently, Lisa Yayla, the list’s owner, posted a piece describing using hot wax to make tactile images.  She wrote about using wax alone and by dipping a thin thread into wax and making tactile graphics from them.  She explained that, in her past, she taught the craft of making Ukrainian Easter Eggs, a process which I am told uses melted wax, and suddenly the idea of making a tactile graphic using a similar technique came to her.  Low tech as it may seem, Lisa’s wax method can create very useful tactile images for a very small cost.  Once again, a mainstream technology transferred into the accessibility world provides an easier and less expensive solution.  Wax images are not the right answer to many tactile graphic problems so thermoform and the cool embossers from ViewPlus needn’t worry but wax can be another tool in our collection of techniques for creating tactile images.

The tactile graphics mailing list has also piqued my interest in tactile books.  Earlier today, I ordered a book called, “Touch the Sun, A NASA Braille Book” by Noreen Grice from for $24 (it also gave me a reason to buy the latest Elvis Costello CD as I had to break $25 for free shipping).  The book, also available from Barnes & Noble, teaches its readers about the sun and how it works.  I suspect that I might find the book to cover topics I already understand and may target a younger audience but I hope to explore the tactile images in the book to get a better feel for how I can learn fairly complex information by touch.

The search results for this book includes among its sponsored links a site called The Braille Superstore which I have not visited yet but, according to the blurb on amazon, claims to offer a “Huge selection of Braille books, products, games and more.”  There also seems to be quite a few resources online for Braille children’s books.  I don’t know how many others are sold by amazon as they don’t let one search for specific characteristics of a book.

Soon, I will write a blog entry about tactile art and tactile representations of famous artworks.  I have read a fair amount about this subject lately and find it very interesting.  I’m an art lover and, if I close my eyes, I can still conjure works by my favorite painters.  I haven’t done any hands on testing of these tactile representations so I don’t know if they will help me create a synaesthetic image of the work or not.

As my interest in things tactile grows, I find myself attracted to the video game section at Circuit City and Best Buy to check out the latest force feedback devices and try to think up ways to adapt them for some kind of valuable use by a blind person.  I doubt I’ll ever find someone to fund a development project involving the force feedback fishing rod to simulate catching snook from a canoe but many of the others look like they might have promise.  If any Blind Confidential readers have any experience with force feedback game controllers, please send me your impressions of them.  Also, if you happen buy the video game section in a store, play around with some of these devices and ask yourself how a blind person might benefit from using such a device in some future access technology product.

The last time I spent any time actually playing with a force feedback game happened back in the old Henter-Joyce days.  Our then beloved and deeply feared General Manager, Jerry Bowman, made the mistake of taking a vacation.  His office sat at the end of the hall filled with we hacker types.  We had a tradition of pulling practical jokes on people when they went on vacation.  One time, one of the people in the test lab went into my SYMBOLS.INI file in my JFW folder and changed the letter “r” to “w” and “th” to “f” so, when I returned, JAWS 3.something spoke with a terrible lisp.  I found myself with a gay PC.  

Returning to the Bowman story, Jerry is a NASCAR fanatic, he and his wife drive their motor home all over the country to attend the different events.  The sport never had much appeal to me, why watch a bunch of rednecks turning left?  But, as it made our fearless leader happy, we decided to go with a racing video game.  A product manager ran out to one of the consumer electronics stores and returned with a deluxe, NASCAR authorized video game complete with force feedback dashboard, steering wheel and gas peddle.  It may have had a clutch too, I don’t remember.  A couple of the software guys (actually, software was all we had back then) hooked it up and hid Jerry’s keyboard.  I, as department manager, had to test the system to ensure reliability and accessibility.  I sat in Bowman’s chair and, listening to two of the programmers yell directions at me, crashed my way around the Daytona speedway causing great injury (in the gaming world) to Jeff Gordon and lots of other NASCAR drivers, pit stop workers and fans in the grandstand.  The game did not qualify as accessible but it did seem reliable and certain to create a good laugh when the boss returned.


Sam posted a number of very interesting questions in the comments section following the article about DVS I posted yesterday.  While I find these questions tremendously compelling, I have to wave the white flag and turn those queries over to someone who might know the answer.  I haven’t spent any time studying how different people might enjoy different films with or without a descriptive audio track or can I speak to how well one can pay attention to such a presentation when compared with sighted people or to program without the DVS turned on.

My friend, Will Pearson recently wrote an email to me about the psychology of attention which speaks somewhat to Sam’s questions so, perhaps, Will can post his thoughts on the DVS issues.  I would also recommend searching in googles academic engine to see if anyone has published on this topic.  Lastly, I would go to the WGBH Center for Accessible Media and see if they have any articles posted on the matter.  If you still can’t find any studies on DVS that answer the questions Sam posed yesterday, you might send an email to someone at WGBH to ask for pointers.  They are really terrific people who I have always found to be very helpful.

In yesterday’s blog, I forgot to include links to the various businesses and organizations I referenced.  Fortunately, all of them also appear in today’s post so if you couldn’t find on your own, there is a link in the article above.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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