This is one in a series presenting news on technology and innovation, made possible with generous support from the Lemelson Foundation.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It means that some information is best conveyed visually. And that’s especially true in many research fields, says electrical engineer Dan Gardner.
But what if you can’t see?
Dan’s dad learned firsthand just how hard some science work can be when he could no longer see pictures, graphs or other visual displays of his data.
John Gardner was a solid-state physicist at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. His job involved using “the properties of the nucleus [of an atom] to learn something about the solid [state]” of materials, he explains. For many projects, he and his team added tiny bits of radioactive impurities — think of them as tags — to different solids and liquids. Then they applied a strong magnetic field to each material.
Energy from the “tags” would be released in the form of gamma rays — a type of radiation. The rays would be at right angles to each other. But there was also some wiggle, some variation in the angle of an emerging beam of energy. The wiggles came from other atoms in the material, which were all moving around.
“What we did,” John explains, “was to evaluate the wiggles.” That gave his team useful information about the materials they studied. Yet to do that took a lot of complex math. And it involved studying a lot of graphs.
Although blind in one eye, John could see with the other. Or he could until too much pressure built up from fluid in the good eye. He needed surgery. Unfortunately, his eye reacted badly. This left the scientist completely blind.
John still wanted to do physics. But to do that, he had to interpret each graph precisely. “Getting it exactly right all the time was incredibly important,” he explains. And that, he notes, “was not easy to do when I couldn’t see [those graphs].” Once he became blind, he had to approach things differently.
For a while, he still supervised graduate students. They would tell him what a graph showed. That helped somewhat. But he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to more directly “see” those graphs and data that underpinned his work.
His solution: Design a system to make touchable data graphs and other “visual” aids for himself and others who couldn’t see well, or at all.
John got a team together at OSU. With financial help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), they invented a new type of printer for these data and graphs.
Braille is a form of printing for the blind. Raised dots take the place of printed letters. But regular braille couldn’t handle a lot of advanced math. It didn’t work well for scientific graphs and charts, either, John explains. People at NSF asked John if his team could invent a better way. He told them he thought so. Afterward, NSF gave his group funding to give it a try.
Together, John’s team worked to apply the concept of braille to math and visual data.
Their novel printer squeezes paper between pointy tools called punches and little cups, called dies. When the punches press into the dies, they make raised dots on the paper between them. This type of printing with raised dots is called embossing.
The team showed NSF how the concept worked. “They were absolutely blown away,” John recalls. NSF gave his group another grant for more work. And John moved from working on physics to working full-time on developing this technology. His new job: creating new tools for scientists with vision problems.
How to make data 'show and tell'
John Gardner set up ViewPlus Technologies to make the new printers — and make them better.
For instance, the printers had to work with common software programs such as Word and Excel. They also needed to increase how many dots per inch, or DPI, the machine could emboss. The more dots per inch, the sharper and more detailed a graph or chart could be.
Users would also need to be able to tell different parts of a map or chart from each other. One bar chart might compare several groups in a study, for example. Someone might display this on a regular chart using different colors, shading or other visual patterns. John’s team had to figure out ways to display such contrasts. They decided on “shading” such regions using dots with different heights.
The team also has developed interactive “talking” pictures. This system combines a tactile (TAK-tyle), or touchable, printout with a computer to make interactive graphs and charts. One printer step embosses braille and graphics. Another adds visible ink. Meanwhile, a computer file for the graph has sound information coded for different parts of the image.
Now a sighted teacher or low-vision user can work with the same document. A person puts the tactile printout over a touchscreen. That touchscreen is hooked up to a computer, and the corresponding computer file is open. As someone touches different parts of the printout, this activates the touchscreen below. And that triggers the computer to read aloud the matching audio information for the touched spot. Someone doesn’t even need to know how to read braille to use this system.
One size doesn’t fit all
Imke Durre has one of the earliest versions of the Gardners’ embosser. She is a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Asheville, N.C. Like John Gardner, she is blind.
Durre’s group collects and studies weather and climate data. Among other things, these data help her team figure out what’s normal for different locations. The group uses a lot of maps and charts in its work. Three years ago, Durre and a colleague described how likely it is for parts of the United States to have a white, or snowy, Christmas. A map displayed their results.
Durre uses her embosser to print braille. But she’s found that it isn’t always convenient to use for graphics.
Sometimes, for example, a sighted person had to help her make a graph bigger or pull it out from some larger document. Those extra steps take time and effort. Often, “it’s more efficient to have a sighted person just describe to me what the graph looks like,” Durre points out.
But tech for people with disabilities doesn’t help all people equally. It isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Durre can see “a lot of value” for the embosser and touchscreen products in schools. Students need to learn how to read and make graphs. And teachers and aides can help them use these new products.
Early versions of the embosser did need a sighted person to prep the text that goes along with a graph, John Gardner says. The latest printers let blind people tinker with text. They also can resize images and change how a graph’s shaded areas are filled in with dots. They even can print braille and audio-touch graphics by themselves.
John Gardner often talks at conferences about the tools his group has been developing. Assistive technology deals with tools that make life easier for people with disabilities. This past spring, John described the new audio-touch combo at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego, Calif.
For John, such products have made a huge difference. “My biggest joy [comes from] the great maps I can read,” says John Gardner. “I enjoy reading historical novels, traveling and other activities that involve maps. Now I can have maps again.”
angle The space (usually measured in degrees) between two intersecting lines or surfaces at or close to the point where they meet.
atom The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
audio Having to do with sound.
Braille A writing system, used by blind or visually impaired people, that relies on patterns of dots to represent letters, numbers and other characters. When formed of raised dots, Braille may be read by scanning a fingertip over the patterns.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
electrical engineer An engineer who designs, builds or analyzes electrical equipment.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
gamma rays High-energy radiation often generated by processes in and around exploding stars. Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light.
graduate student Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
magnetic field An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA) A science agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Initially established in 1807 under another name (The Survey of the Coast), this agency focuses on understanding and preserving ocean resources, including fisheries, protecting marine mammals (from seals to whales), studying the seafloor and probing the upper atmosphere.
National Science Foundation The U.S. Congress created this independent federal agency in 1950 to promote the advancement of science; national health, prosperity and welfare; and the nation’s defense. This agency funds nearly one-fourth of all federally supported basic research in U.S. colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal funding.
novel Something that is clever or unusual and new, as in never seen before.
nucleus (in physics) The central core of an atom, containing most of its mass.
physics The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.
pressure Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.
radiation (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.
radioactive An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.
right angle A 90-degree angle, equivalent to any inside corner on a square.
software The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.
solid state A term for electronics technologies that create circuitry or devices from solid materials known as semiconductors. As they work, their electrons (or other charge carriers) remain confined entirely within the solid material.
tactile An adjective that describes something that is or can be sensed by touching.
tag To mark the useful properties or sites within an object with a physical object or chemical agent. (in cell biology) The attachment of a chemical that stains a cell (or cell part) or that glows when a certain wavelength of light hits it. material that it should attack and disable or remove.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Meeting: J. Gardner and V. Sorge. Generating audio-tactile and web-accessible SVG graphics — 2018 update. CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. March 22, 2018. San Diego, Calif.
Meeting: J. Gardner and C. Supalo. Audio/Braille/tactile access to STEM using LEANMath and IVEO. Assistive Technology Industry Association. February 1, 2018. Orlando, Fla.
Meeting: J. Gardner. Stem hands-on seminar plus tutorials. National Federation of the Blind. Annual Convention 2017. July 10, 2017. Orlando, Fla.
Journal: I. Durre and M. Squires. White Christmas? An Application of NOAA’s 1981–2010 Daily Normals. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association. Vol. 96, November 2015, p. 1853. doi: 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00038.1.