Monday, May 6, 2013

Exploring 3D Tactile Technologies for Visually Impaired Children

A Unique Challenge – Helping Families Create Tactile Books for Visually Impaired Children
ATLAS MS-ICTD student Abigale Stangl and computer science team work on human-centered design strategies and tools

Abigale Stangl has taken on a unique challenge. How can parents with visually impaired children create custom-tailored storybooks and learning tools for their loved ones using 3D printing technologies? How can this be done easily and affordably by parents with varying levels of computer proficiency? What kinds of guidelines and best practices will serve families dealing with these issues?

Photo at left: ATLAS MS-ICTD student Abigale Stangl and a computer science team led by assistant professor Tom Yeh work on human-centered computer (HCC) solutions to help parents of the visually impaired. She sits in the lab where computer science graduate student Jeeeun Kim fabricated the tactile book prototypes shown below.

CU’s ATLAS Institute ICTD Practicum
Stangl is conducting this research as part of her practicum semester in the last portion of her academic program at CU’s ATLAS Institute Master of Science in Information and Communication Technology for Development (MS-ICTD). During the practicum, ICTD students turn classroom theory into on-site, real-world practice.  

They team up with private or public organizations, companies and NGOs to work on solutions to various quality-of-life issues in communities located around the world.  Stangl teamed up with Professor Tom Yeh and fellow graduate student Jeeeun Kim in the Sikuli Lab of CU’s Department of Computer Science.

A Surprising Path
She came to this project from a surprising path: environmental design and landscape architecture. Quite a leap, one might say. Perhaps.

However, the challenges she took on in her previous field called on her to design and problem-solve across multiple disciplines – urban design, horticulture, community relations, etc. Her proven ability to work comfortably with a diverse set of specialties continues to serve her today in the field of ICTD.

The People Part
There are multiple dimensions to this project. One of them is people, of course – parents, children, teachers, developmental and behavioral psychologists and computer scientists.

“As a cultural component of the work,” she explained, “I regularly visit Denver’s Anchor Center (a preschool for visually impaired children) to observe the ways small children play and learn. They range in age from several months old to five years old. I learn a lot from seeing how teachers and parents interact with the children.”

From this steady observation, Stangl gains insight into what sorts of learning tools might best serve children and parents. One of her insights appears to be a universal truth about learning.

Stories are Fundamental
“We learn from stories and story telling. Stories are fundamental. Just as parents of children (with fully functioning senses including sight) enjoy the intimacy and connection of reading to their children with picture books and storybooks, parents of visually impaired children have the same desire to participate in their children’s lives.”

2D to 3D Software Interface
Screen layout at left conceptualizes what a 2D to 3D software package could look like. As its subject matter, Stengl features the classic children’s book “Good Night Moon.” The goal is for parents and teachers to be able to create 3D objects from existing 2D children's books that visually impaired children will then be able to explore, play with and learn from.

Stangl continued, “For the visually impaired, tactile development is vital. Before children can learn to read (with Braille), their sense of touch needs to be practiced,  strengthened and heightened. This comes through the exercise and exploration that tactile books provide. Of course, it’s not only about touch. It’s about the understanding and ‘seeing’ of a greater world with all its complexities and context that is made available through the window of touch.”

The Technology Part
As mentioned, the technology portion of the work is being developed by a team of colleagues in the Sikuli Lab of CU’s Department of Computer Science. Graduate students collaborating in the work include Jeeeun Kim who contributes to the research by experimenting with software, hardware and a variety of materials to fabricate tactile prototypes. (See below.)

Photo at right: Five textured layouts were  fabricated by computer science graduate student Jeeeun Kim. Each one could potentially be used as materials for tactile storybooks. Clockwise from left: Plastic yellow layout shows a tactile illustration of a room interior, formed by a 3D printer; three executions of a diagram of an egg uses three materials: 1. Cut and folded blue paper; 2. Multi-layered laser-cut wood; 3. Etched red plastic; sitting to the right of a pen, a transparent plastic sheet becomes a base for raised forms that illustrate a room interior, made from a glue gun.

Several faculty members serve as principal investigators and senior advisors. All contribute to moving the research forward. One of Stangl’s computer science professors, Tom Yeh, proposed the project and ignited her curiosity about tactile perception and interface design for children with visual impairments.

User-Centered Design
“I took a class with Dr. Yeh in human computer interaction (HCI) and human centered computing. What I learned in class beautifully fit my worldview and my goals – make sure projects are user-centered. The work must begin and end with the needs of the user," Stengl continued.

Photo at left: At $2,000, this MakerBot 3D printer represents a price breakthrough that could make it possible for parents of visually impaired children to print their own tactile learning aids at home.

“Given my design background, I’ve seen how both environmental and social information must be synthesized into solutions that are sensitive to the needs of whoever you’re designing for – in this case – teachers, parents and their children.”

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Abigale Stangl and six other ATLAS MS-ICTD students presented the work they completed during their practicum semester on April 10th. Videos of their presentations will be available online.

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Link to ATLAS Institute’s MS-ICTD program:
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The writer of this article, Ira Liss, is ATLAS Institute's assistant director of communications and also a pianist, singer/songwriter and performing artist. See videos of his original work. Contact him