A tactile glove for computer graphics for the blind

This completed study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF),
 grant number IIS-0083347. The project period was 3/15/2001–6/30/2008. The research was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the principal investigator was Paul Bach-y-Rita.

Access to computer graphics and graphical user interfaces (GUI’s) by blind and visually impaired persons has always been a problem. As technology has advanced, and the use of web-based, graphically-rich information sources has skyrocketed, both new and previously very competent blind computer users have been excluded from equitable access to resources on the digital highway.

This project, which is based on our long-term studies of late brain plasticity and tactile sensory substitution, is intended to: demonstrate the feasibility of delivering patterned computer-graphic information for haptic scanning by using a fingertip-mounted optical-to-tactile conversion system; to explore perceptual and sensorimotor issues related to the acquisition of two- and three dimensional images by blind persons, and to explore the potential utility of such a system as both an educational tool and a practical device for everyday use by blind and visually impaired users.

The completed system will have a tethered glove, which the blind person puts on one hand, which can be freely scanned across a large flat computer LCD monitor (mounted facing up in front of him/her). The graphics displayed on the monitor will be perceived by spreading the fingers to cover a larger part of the image, or pulling them together for exploration of a more complex image. The blind user will be able to control the size of the image (using zoom/loom) and the characteristics of the display, such as edge-enhancement, black-white reversal, and other characteristics of the image. Characterization of these control features will be part of the software development effort.

We will develop an optical interface to a commercially available tactile display glove. Performance analysis will be performed to explore the specific operating characteristics of both hardware and software for a future version of such a device that would be affordable for any school serving the educational needs of visually impaired students. Perceptual and sensorimotor studies will be designed to obtain scientifically valid evidence of sensory information transport. We hypothesize that not only will these forms of graphical information be accessible with such a device, but that that the wealth of information potentially available from such images exceed that achievable by any other means presently available.

We envision a system in the future that will allow a visually impaired user to haptically explore almost any video-graphic information, from a pie chart shown on a desktop CRT display in a 3rd grade classroom, to a complex molecular structure displayed on students laptop LCD in a biochemistry lecture that is downlinked with the instructors’ PC. The program described herein is designed to yield results that we believe will lead to the development of a useful system for tactile access to visual graphics.

Project Publications

  1. Tyler, M.E., Haase, S.J., Kaczmarek, K.A., & Bach-y-Rita, P, "Development of an electrotactile glove for display of graphics for the blind: Preliminary results", (2002). Conference Proceedings, Accepted Collection: Proceedings of the 2nd Joint Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and the Biomedical Engineering Society; Bibliography: A publication of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.
  2. Final report for entire project period

Our Research

Founded in 1992, the Tactile Com­mu­nication & Neurorehabilitation Laboratory (TCNL) is located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We are a research center that uses the experience of many different areas of science to study the theory and application of applied neuro­plasticity, the brain’s ability to re­or­ganize in response to new informa­tion, needs, and pathways.

Our research is aimed at developing solutions for sensory and motor disorder rehabilitation.