Tactile Sketch Pad for the Blind Moves Forward

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In the Fall of 2008, a lucky contact with Dr. Al Maneki, a retired mathematician in Baltimore who is blind, led to a Senior Design project related to use of raised-line drawing methods by blind artists, engineers, scientists, architects, and others who must perceive graphics through touch. Al briefed Mike Rosen – organizer and principle instructor of the ME/EE capstone design course – on the need for more effective and sophisticated technology to meet this need, and connected him to the National Federation of the Blind. The NFB made a decision to provide substantial financial support to this course – SEED, the Senior Experience in Engineering Design – and to partner with a student design team. The team was mentored by Mike and his Engineering faculty colleague, Mike Coleman, whose own portfolio includes both engineering mechanics and graphic art.

The outcome from the '08-'09 NFB student team was a prototype thermal eraser capable of heat-shrinking raised lines scribed on cellophane, a standard sketching medium on the market for the blind. Prior to their work, users could create free-hand tactile drawings but had no means of editing them. One of the students from that team joined Rosen and Coleman at the NFB Convention in Detroit in July of '09 to demonstrate their device to potential users and gather reactions. Responses were very positive and motivated the NFB, specifically the Jernigan Research Institute, to co-sponsor SEED again in AY 2009-2010 and partner with a second design team.

Mentored once again by Rosen and Coleman at UVM and by Al Maneki as a blind "early adaptor," a new group of four seniors undertook to meet a more demanding goal. They visualized a "Tactile Sketchpad" capable of digitizing a free-hand drawing the bind user generates it on conventional plastic sheet and reproducing it through an electro-mechanical computer-driven scribing mechanism. In effect, they proposed to design a printer/copier for raised-line graphics. The outcome of their work, presented and demonstrated publically at the School of Engineering Design Night on May 3rd, 2010, substantially met the team's initial goals.

What the students (Kristin Funabashi, Katie Accomondo, Will Banks, and Rebecca Risko) completed, and what Rosen, Coleman, Accomondo, and Maneki were able to demonstrate at the this summer's NFB Convention in Dallas, was a proof-of- concept prototype that successfully stored and mimicked a user's drawing in near-real time. The design makes use of an adapted x-y plotter mechanism to scribe lines on plastic sheet with a firm rubber backing. Like standard production of raised lines by hand, the scribing tool leaves a trail of small closely spaced blisters resulting from a "slip-stick" behavior of the material and tool. The user draws on her own separate plastic sheet, in the conventional manner except that her drawing surface is overlaid on an off-the-shelf digitizing tablet. The group also presented an improved version of the thermal eraser which received good feedback and suggestions for future improvement. Thanks to fast engineering, design, and fabrication contributions from Mike Fortney and Doug Gomez at the UVM Instrument and Modeling Facility, the version brought to Dallas was reliable and easy to visualize as a finished product.

The exciting news from late this summer is that the NFB has once again chosen to support a SEED project to advance this work through the efforts of another team of EE and ME seniors. Although the specifics of their design will emerge over the next several months, their goal for the year, as proposed to NFB, is to prototype Tactile CyberScribe. This device will, in effect, provide to blind users the tactile equivalent of a tablet computer. The user and the mechanical scribing mechanism will draw – and erase – on a single surface, and the computer-driven mechanism will respond in near real time to drawing inputs from other remote users via the internet. This will enable collaborative design efforts by blind professionals, and students, as well as reproduction of previously prepared and archived drawing files. At this writing, Coleman and Rosen await word from NIH regarding their proposal for related work, an outcome that would extend line of effort from senior design to graduate R&D.

For more information contact:
Michael Rosen or Michael Coleman