Visualizations have incredible potential for illuminating insights that we just wouldn't see if we didn't have the numbers. Many organizations in both industry and academia utilize visualizations when making important decisions. However, these visualizations are inherently inaccessible to blind and visually impaired community members, blocking them from participating in these conversations.

What it does

Tactile translates the graphs displayed on a screen into tangible movements.

Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, realized that she could translate visible sign language symbols into patterns on the palm of Helen's hand. Inspired by this method, Tactile traces the datasets typically represented in a line graph along the user's palm.

How we built it

Both the traditional visualizations and the tactile behavior are controlled by a Node.js server on an Intel Edison. The traditional visualizations are represented in a dashboard describing the state of the housing market in Detroit, the type of dashboard that community decision-makers at the Land Policy Institute might use. The tactile component is driven by two servos with flexible plastic rods attached to them, which rotate over a few seconds to represent the relationship between the lines over time.

Challenges we ran into

We were brand new to Intel Edison development and fairly unused to hardware development in general. We brought some simple starter kits for Arduino and Raspberry Pi with us, but we were expecting on the MLH Hardware Lab to have a lot more hardware and actuators available. Therefore we needed to do a lot of brainstorming to find something that could meet the challenge of representing something visual to non-visual people.

What I learned

Working with hardware is complicated, and in the future we should probably enlist an electrical engineer.

What's next for Tactile

The original plan for Tactile was to create a literal heat map, where bulbs of different colors would heat up to different (safe-to-the-touch) temperatures to create a tactile map that could represent color gradients for people who can't see colors. This would also be helpful for colorblind people. When we have access to the proper heating elements, we will add this component to the system.

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