Future Reflections Summer 2013
by Dr. Marjorie Darrah
From the Editor: The NFB is deeply committed to enhancing opportunities for blind students to study science, technology, engineering, and math--fields in which content is often presented in highly visual ways. In this article, Dr. Marjorie Darrah of eTouchSciences explains how the emerging field of haptic technology offers exciting possibilities for nonvisual access to scientific information.
Topics in math and science are often presented in very visual ways such as diagrams and simulations. In many instances these visual presentations are not easily accessible to students who are blind or have visual impairments. An innovative technology called computer haptics provides a way to offer additional information through the sense of touch to supplement information being provided through visual and auditory means. By using a computer and a peripheral device called a haptic force-feedback controller, students can virtually explore three-dimensional shapes, receiving tactile and kinesthetic sensations. These sensations can convey information such as shape, weight, viscosity, texture, vibration, magnetism, and elasticity. eTouchSciences is creating computer applications, or apps, that utilize this technology to help middle-school students learn math and science concepts.
The eTouchSciences system uses haptic hardware to provide sensory feedback that simulates physical properties and forces. Just as a monitor enables sighted users to see computer-generated images, and as audio speakers allow users to hear sounds, the haptic device makes it possible for blind or visually impaired users to feel force feedback and textures while they manipulate virtual two- and three-dimensional objects. The haptic device allows the user to interact with a virtual object, such as a cell membrane or a feature on the surface of a planet, using the sense of touch.
Paired with the eTouchSciences applications is the Novint Falcon 3D touch controller, an external haptic device. The Novint Falcon is nine inches wide by nine inches tall. At the center of the device is a round grip attached to the body by three arms. This grip can move four inches in any of three different directions: vertically, horizontally, and forward and backward. The Novint Falcon is easy to set up by connecting a cord to the USB port on a computer and plugging it into the wall. When students use the eTouchSciences apps, they move the Novint Falcon grip, allowing them to feel force feedback from the device that simulates the objects and textures that are being displayed on the computer monitor, or allowing them to feel forces that are being simulated, such as gravity. For example, when students are learning about the differing gravities on the planets, they can move the grip around to feel the shape of a bowling ball. Then they can press a button on the grip to pick up the ball and feel its weight on that particular planet.
A variety of computer-based applications cover selected math and science topics. Each application includes a lesson guide for teachers. The guide outlines the content standards that the app will address. It also contains guiding questions for the app, an overview of the lesson, and suggestions of ways to use the lesson in the classroom. Each app is a complete lesson that covers one or two of the national standards in math or science. Each app has full audio description that explains the scenes and teaches the lesson. There are also high-contrast graphics for students with low vision.
The feature that differentiates these computer-based applications is that each scene has elements that can be felt. Using the haptic controller, the student can explore the object that appears on the screen and is being discussed in the audio description. Students have a true multisensory experience without any additional work on the part of the teacher or parents. Here are some examples of the haptic-based computer applications that are now available.
Students learn the three parts of an atom (electron, proton, and neutron), distinguishing them through various forces and textures. Students then interact with the atoms of three different elements. They learn that protons and neutrons are in the atom's nucleus, while electrons are in rings around the outside of the atom. They can feel and count the number of parts in the hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen atoms while receiving audio cues and hearing interesting facts.
Students learn about mass and weight and how they are different. They feel how the weight of a bowling ball changes on the moon and different terrestrial planets, while its mass stays the same. Students can use the haptic device to feel the size and shape of the bowling ball, and they can lift it to feel its weight on the terrestrial planets and the moon.
Students feel a mountain that is an inactive volcano before it erupts. Then they feel the same mountain vibrating to get the sense that something is happening under the surface. The volcano then erupts, and students can feel that the top is different. They are then given a cutaway model of the volcano to feel in order to detect the layers inside.
Students learn about all the parts of a plant cell. After exploring the full model to learn what organelles are, students can press a button to explore a larger model of each organelle. With the use of textures and shapes, each organelle feels different. The audio description explains the function of each organelle in the cell.
Students learn about the volume of a cylinder, cone, and sphere by being given the challenge of making ice cream cones for their friends. The lesson begins with a cylinder-shaped container. Students have to compute how much ice cream is in the container and then how many ice cream cones it will fill. They learn and use three formulas to calculate the volume of 3D shapes.
The developers of the haptic-based math and science materials believe that haptic technology should be viewed as an assistive technology to deliver math and science content. Given the need for access to certain types of data and information by students with visual impairments, haptic-based software may prove to be a successful alternative. Computer haptics provide additional stimulation for students with visual impairments and engage another learning modality.
The applications have been tested by experts, and they are making their way into the classroom. The many teachers who served as adult experts agree that the haptic device and the haptic-based materials can be used in a classroom setting and will be accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired. Usability and feasibility testing also revealed that the haptic device is easy to set up and master. Furthermore, this phase of testing revealed and helped solidify best practices for developing the apps for the target audience.
Several of the applications have undergone extensive student testing as well. These preliminary results show promise for the haptic-based apps as valuable classroom materials for middle school students who are blind or visually impaired. The testing consisted of a pre-test and post-test on the material. Students were given a pre-test to determine their level of knowledge on a topic before using the application. Next they were allowed to play with the application on their own. Assistance was given only if a technical issue arose. Students were then given a post-test on the material. The pre- and post-tests were analyzed, using a paired t-test. In all cases there were significant learning gains from pre-test to post-test. Students from the states of West Virginia, California, Texas, and Georgia, as well as students from British Columbia, Canada, have participated in classroom testing.
The haptic device and haptic-based software described in this article are very affordable, with a device costing about $200 and the apps costing about $10 each. This technology can be used to supplement tactile graphics, 3D models, and verbal description in the math and science classroom, bringing great benefits to students. Haptics-based technology can be a new tool for teachers and students to add to their toolboxes. Parents can also use it with their children at home.
eTouchSciences plans to continue to release apps in various areas of math and science. The company will work with teachers who submit ideas for applications that they would like to see developed. You can find our products at <www.etouchsciences.com> and learn more about how things work from our product video at <www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C8o3IfDkgY>.
[This project has been funded in part by the IES SBIR program at the US Department of Education under Contract Number ED-IES-11-C-0028. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the US Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the US government.]