There’s an entire industry involved in creating tactile maps for blind people, but what, you may ask, about tactile displays of Web pages? Surely limiting yourself to a simple line or two of Braille text is so 20th century? According to our German friends, it is.

Rotard et al., in “A tactile Web browser for the visually disabled” (abstract), used a device with 120 × 60 movable pins. (If I could find a link to it, I’d give you one. It is no doubt fiendishly expensive.) Web pages were displayed on this device as though it were an old Macintosh monitor, with pixels on or off. Needless to say, valid code helped:

The results of our transformation schema for Web pages into a tactile representation is best when the HTML source code is valid and semantically correct…. The tactile Web browser is implemented in Java. Documents that [do not conform] to the W3C standard have to be corrected by using heuristic methods [and JTidy].

They developed a method to turn graphics into two-bit representations, with pins up or down. Then they lay out the page rectangularly.

[W]e calculate boxes for each element like text paragraphs or images. HTML text can flow around an image, which results in non-rectangular rendering areas for text paragraphs. Thus, we split these areas into a number of rectangular rendering areas.

They also seem to actually display codes for typographic and structural markup: “Text attributes are written directly as special style tags into the text…. Boldface is designated as <b>, italic as <i>… colours as <c=color>, heading 1 to 6 as <h1> to <h6>, etc.” This I find amazing, if not counterproductive and flatly wrong. I am sure that emphasis can already be indicated in Braille, and indention is sufficient to indicate headings in the majority of cases.

Now. Did people like it?

Although the two-dimensional layout was unfamiliar to visually-disabled people, it turned out to be very useful. The handling of selecting links and images was intuitive and easy. [Nonetheless,] the exploration of tactile graphics, including zooming, scrolling, and applying filters, was new to the users…. [E]xploring tactile images is difficult and users could not figure out what some of the images depicted.

An interesting idea all the same, don’t you think? Old Optacon users (search hits and images) could achieve considerable reading speeds using images of printed letters reproduced in vibrating pins; an adaptation of this technology could use raised letters.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.11.21 16:43. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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