University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

Erasing Boundaries for the Blind

 

Michael Rosen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Research, has produced research related to people with disabilities for the past four decades, the last ten in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. It wasn't until he co-founded Engineering to Assist and Support You (E.A.S.Y), LLC with a colleague and a former student, however, that he felt like his research truly impacted lives.

"This company represents the first time that something I have been involved with as an academic engineer will end up in use by people who actually need it," says Rosen. "My research has resulted in refereed papers, conference presentations, and about eight patents, none of which led to things actually being in the hands of people with disabilities. It's a kind of closure towards the end of my career, but also represents a new beginning."

Since the launch of E.A.S.Y in 2012, Rosen, his colleague Michael Coleman, Ph.D., and CEMS alumnus Joshua Coffee ('11), have developed three highly innovative tactile graphics products that are expected to dramatically improve the way the blind and visually impaired (BVI) students, as well as professionals like engineers, mathematicians and artists, learn and communicate.

The inTACT Eraser fundamentally changes the way BVI students approach schoolwork by giving them the ability, for the very first time, to change, correct and update tactile graphics as they sketch. The handheld device allows users to flatten raised lines as they draw on the company's special inTACT Sketchpad, eliminating the tactile lines to the touch, similar to erasing pencil lines. The sketchpad, recently put into production by Progressive Plastics in Williamstown, Vt., allows users to make freehand tactile drawings by producing easy-to-feel raised lines with a stylus on a thin plastic drawing sheet.

"Without the eraser and sketchpad, raised-line drawing or calculating has been like working with crayons or a pen," says Coffee. "A sighted student would never do their math in pen in seventh grade, so the eraser should give BVI kids the confidence to work without the fear of making a mistake that can't be corrected."

Coffee is working with Pearson Education, a producer of K–12 educational content, to create interactive tactile graphical exercises and graphics similar to existing K–12 school text books for the sighted.

The inTACT Raised-line Printer will allow teachers and professionals to print tactile drawings from computer files and share them with others on the same plastic drawing sheets used in the sketchpad, which they can add to or modify using the eraser, making tactile drawing interactive for the first time. Another groundbreaking advance is a digitizing circuit board built into the base of the sketchpad, so drawings can be saved in standard digital graphics format and transferred to a PC.

The idea for E.A.S.Y grew out of a project in Senior Experience in Engineering Design (SEED) capstone course taught by Rosen, based on a conversation with a blind mathematician, who emphasized the need for new learning products for the blind. Rosen, Coleman and Coffee regularly attend the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) annual convention and state conventions to identify potential customers and problems that need solving.

Initial capital was secured from NFB, which led to UVM's Office of Technology Commercialization providing a low interest loan from the UVM Ventures Innovation Fund, and residency at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. Other funding followed from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the form of a Phase-I small business grant with the potential for a much larger Phase-II grant.

"We often hear things like 'I could have been an architect' or 'where were you when I was in high school' and that's when we understand the significance of what we're trying to accomplish," says Coffee.

Photo caption: From left: Michael Coleman, Ph.D., demonstrates the inTACT Eraser, designed for use by blind and visually impaired
students, while his colleagues Michael Rosen, Ph.D., and UVM alumnus Joshua Coffee look on.

Last modified May 15 2014 03:27 PM