Braille Monitor                                                 June 2012

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Can We Erase Our Mistakes? The Need for Enhanced Tactile Graphics

by Al Maneki

From the Editor: Until 2007 Al Maneki worked as a mathematician with the U.S. Department of Defense. Since his retirement he has been actively involved in several projects sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute. He does occasional tutoring in mathematics and is active in the NFB of Maryland. He is an avid reader with eclectic tastes and he still finds time to dabble in mathematical problem-solving.

Al Maneki reading BrailleEver since my childhood in Hawaii during the 1940s and 50s, I have heard over and over that blind people cannot draw diagrams. Based on that premise, everyone assumed that we could never study geometry, the hard sciences, or engineering. In fact I was told blind people shouldn't even think about entering the scientific professions.

Nevertheless, I heard occasional stories about exceptions to this rule. When I asked about these successful blind scientists and mathematicians, people had a ready answer--they must have become blind as adults. Even though they performed their work without vision, the memory of sight endowed them with the ability to succeed.

I don't know why I persisted in my study of mathematics. In part it had to do with a handful of college professors who did not want to deter me. As long as I was successful in their courses, they could simply pass me on to the next level without worrying about my long-term future. A few professors were genuinely concerned. They had no clear answers about career goals for me, but they had faith that my abilities would carry me forward.

When I needed tactile diagrams to illustrate a concept in one of my math or physics courses, someone drew them for me. For everyone, professors and fellow students who helped me with matters graphical and otherwise, I am eternally grateful. Sometimes the drawings were made on paper laid over a sheet of rubber. By running a dressmaker's tracing wheel over the paper, a reader could create a raised line, but I had to turn the sheet over to feel the raised lines that had appeared on the back.

Diagrams could also be made with a remarkable device called the Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit. Recently I searched the Internet seeking the history of this device, but I could not find the exact date when it became available. It has certainly been around since the 1950s. Instead of paper the Sewell Kit used thin sheets of Mylar plastic. The advantage was that raised lines appeared right side up, so I did not have to reverse the drawing to examine it. The limitation for blind people was that we could not create these drawings by ourselves because we had no way to erase our mistakes.

As it turned out for me and for other blind people who have pursued scientific work, the ability to draw diagrams was not essential. However, tactile diagrams were extremely helpful as we learned the necessary subject matter. It would have been useful to have the ability to render our own diagrams if and when the need arose.

Fast forward from my college days in the 1960s to 2008, a year after I retired from my work as a U.S. government mathematician. Through a fortunate set of circumstances I met Dr. Mike Rosen of the School of Engineering at the University of Vermont (UVM). His specialty is rehabilitation engineering. In a series of email exchanges we quickly discovered our common interest in enhancing tactile graphics technologies for blind people. I recognized that Mike Rosen was an exceptionally creative individual. We needed a device that would permit blind people to draw tactile diagrams and to correct their mistakes, and I felt certain that Mike would be instrumental in this work.

Mike taught a required course to engineering majors at UVM called Senior Experience in Engineering Design (SEED). The students are given problems to solve--projects posed and funded by private companies and nonprofit organizations. We outlined a possible program to build a tactile graphics device for use by blind people that would fit nicely into the SEED course if it could be funded.

I was so taken by Mike Rosen's enthusiasm and careful thought that I approached NFB President Marc Maurer. I suggested that the NFB support SEED during the 2008-09 academic year to work on tactile graphics. Recognizing the soundness of Mike’s engineering judgments and the importance of tactile graphics for blind people, President Maurer gave his enthusiastic approval. The NFB Jernigan Institute funded a SEED project during 2008-09.

As the instructor for the SEED course and the primary faculty advisor for the tactile graphics project, Mike Rosen recruited his teaching colleague, Dr. Mike Coleman, to assist in advising the team. Mike Coleman is also well suited for this work. He shares Rosen's enthusiasm for tactile graphics and brings additional expertise in rigid body dynamics, biomechanics, and robotics. The strength of the SEED course is that students are not told what to do by their advisors. As the instructor Mike Rosen attempts to provide a stimulating and creative environment in which his students can formulate their own solutions, working together to achieve a successful outcome by the end of the academic year. Often the students take approaches that are more novel than the initial ideas of their advisors.

Early in the 2008-09 academic year, the decision was made to design an eraser that would work with the Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit. One remarkable insight that emerged early on was that lines drawn on the Sewell Kit's Mylar sheets might be undone by applying the right amount of heat. Students tested this insight by heating an ordinary stainless steel table knife in a glass of hot water and applying the heated knife to the tactile drawing. As they say, "The rest is history."

At the 2009 NFB convention in Detroit, the tactile graphics SEED team exhibited the first prototype of a tactile eraser constructed from a glue gun without the glue. The device was clumsy and didn't erase as cleanly as we had hoped. The high temperature range necessary to perform the erasures clearly posed an element of risk. However, the device's potential for performing erasures on a Sewell drawing had clearly been established, and the demonstration in Detroit ensured future NFB funding.

At the 2010 NFB convention in Dallas the SEED team exhibited a smaller, improved eraser. The team also brought the first prototype of a device to produce a Sewell drawing from a digital file containing a graphic image. This device consisted of a digital tablet connected to an X-Y plotter that had been modified to produce tactile images on plastic sheets. With this success Rosen, Coleman, and their students were starting to put together an even grander scheme: tie the Sewell Kit and eraser to a digital tablet so that drawings can be digitized and sent to instructors or collaborators on the web. Drawings can be reproduced on a Sewell Kit on the receiving end, modified, and returned to the original sender.

By the time we met in Orlando in 2011, the SEED team was compiling a string of successes at an ever accelerating pace. Instead of using an ordinary pen to sketch on the Sewell Kit, we were now using a digitizing pen attached to a digital tablet. The tablet automatically stored the sequence of strokes in a file. At the remote end a software driver controlling a robotic arm attached to a digital pen created an identical drawing on a printer/plotter. This drawing could be modified and sent back. The cycle of exchanging tactile diagrams electronically was complete. This was the vision presented to us in Orlando, though the details remain to be worked out.

These successes between 2008 and 2011 led to our decision to form the enterprise EASY, LLC, which will be devoted specifically to conducting research in access technologies. Our corporate name is the brainchild of Mike Rosen. EASY is the acronym for "Engineering to Assist and Support You." President Maurer has been extremely encouraging and instrumental in getting this venture started. At its annual meeting the NFB board of directors voted to invest in EASY, LLC. Because of this action I now serve on the EASY management team. Our immediate priority is to bring our eraser to market. To this end we are sending out six prototype erasers to teachers of the visually impaired and their students for testing. EASY, LLC, will continue the work on developing the printer/plotter and digital tablet, making possible the digital storage, revision, and reproduction of tactile graphics.

Rosen, Coleman, and the SEED teams have spent considerable time in the blind community assessing the need for enhanced tactile graphics with erasers. In their interviews and discussions they have met with enthusiastic responses from consumers. Invariably people asked, "When can I buy this, and how much will it cost?"

The electronic communication of tactile graphic images produced by blind people is the logical next step in our drive to gain full access to professional opportunities. Through Braille and synthetic speech we have been able to send text messages worldwide. It will be a wonderful day when we can send tactile graphics worldwide as well. EASY, LLC, will be a vital element in this development.

We don't know exactly what impact enhanced tactile graphics will have on future professional opportunities for blind people, but it's clear that job prospects will improve for us when we have an additional medium for self-expression and personal communication. I believe I would have been a much better student in physics and chemistry if I could have constructed diagrams of lines of force and chemical bonds instead of simply picturing them in my mind. During my career, when colleagues attempted to describe problems to me in terms of flow charts, I could only respond feebly, "Flow charts don't do anything for me." Will access to tactile graphics help us in the fields of psychology, economics, medicine, meteorology, and computer-aided design? I believe it will.

I've given much thought to using enhanced tactile graphics to teach blind people about perspective and projection. According to the dictionary the term perspective refers to "representation in a drawing or painting of parallel lines as converging in order to give the illusion of depth and distance." By projection we mean "a systematic presentation of intersecting coordinate lines on a flat surface upon which features from a curved surface (as of the earth or the celestial sphere) may be mapped." To sighted viewers the value of an image on a page is derived from the fact that three-dimensional objects may be represented in two dimensions. More important, this representation is almost universal. It is understood and interpreted identically by nearly everyone in the industrial world.

Perspective and projection form the basis of the visual arts. Yet almost no attention has been given to teaching these concepts to blind people through the use of tactile graphics. Perhaps our sophistication with tactile graphics technology must progress further before blind people will be able to understand and work with perspective and projection. At this point the possibilities are tantalizing. Is it possible that someday, with the right tools, training, inspiration, and a touch of genius, blind artists may emerge who will work in the medium of tactile graphics a la EASY? Who knows!

While the talents of Mike Rosen, Mike Coleman, and the student engineers at UVM are crucial for the current developments in tactile graphics, we cannot overemphasize the importance of the NFB and the Jernigan Institute in this work. The NFB has provided the SEED program and EASY, LLC, with more than funding. Without the Federation's knowledge of marketing in the blind community and without the NFB's guidance about what blind people can do, EASY, LLC, could have ended up on the scrap heap of well-intentioned companies gone bust. Beyond Rosen and Coleman--the old guard--we are training the next generation of researchers and engineers in the field of blindness. They will work hand in hand with us to create tools that we really can use.

The SEED students have come to our conventions with enthusiasm, energy, and a willingness to learn. They joined in our March for Independence in Detroit; they have attended our general sessions and heard the presidential reports; they demonstrated their prototypes in the exhibit hall; they attended meetings of our Science and Engineering Division and the research and development committee. The NFB's investment in the UVM SEED program and EASY, LLC, is buying more than enhanced tactile graphics. It is helping to train the next generation of engineers.

The road to human progress is paved with trial and error, with mistakes and the ability to correct them. The modern computer-based word processor, with its wonderful delete key, has been a boon to blind writers like me. For the first time enhanced tactile graphics is giving us a means to erase and correct mistakes in our drawings. We have not yet transformed our tactile graphics capabilities with a delete key for the keyboard, but with the help of EASY, LLC, and the NFB, we're getting there.

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