Domain: Research

Tacilia – A Voice Controlled Tactile User Interface for Blind and Partially Sighted Learners

Project Overview

Tacilia started from the applied problem of how to enable children who are blind or have partial sight to be better able to engage with Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths (STEAM) education. By investigating the problems faced in the classroom the need for a multiline, reconfigurable tactile interface was needed to help children read books, explore shapes, to design and to learn to make sense of graphs, charts and other (normally) visual information. The project is led by Tigmanshu Bhatnagar and has been developed at UCL with collaborations across the Global Disability Innovation hub, Institute of Making and UCL’s Interaction Centre (UCLIC), with in the wild studies conducted in India with the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IITD).

The Problem

Tacilia looks to address a subset of an immense or wicked problem, that of Quality Education as defined by the UN in Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). SDG 4 ensures quality education for all children which in turn enables upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty (ref). Children with visual impairments deserve this quality education. It is important to note that a far greater population of children with sight loss live in lower- and middle-income countries where the prevalence can be as high as 1.5 per 1000 children. Tigi worked with local schools in India to observe the classroom learning and teaching experiences of students and educators. What he observed was that despite the growing availability of computers and access to ICT, existing education practices for the blind children in lower- and middle-income regions are depended on printed tactile resources which includes Braille books, Tactile graphic books, Braille slates, Perkins Braille Typewriter and other non-standard frugal tactile materials that are custom made by special educators. These mediums have significant limitations when it came to teaching and learning STEAM subjects.

Applied and Basic Research Combined

This exploration of an applied and practical problem was followed by an investigation in existing academic and market literature that showed the ways in which the world was trying to address the problem. Combining the practical experience and the basic knowledge, the need for development of an affordable multiline braille and tactile graphic display device was identified. This device should enable the presentation of braille and tactile graphics on the same display so that students are able to read, create and learn on a single device. The challenge of existing technologies has been the high cost and complexity of actuators that are used to product such devices. Tigi therefore, worked at a very basic level to invent a new actuator technology for such displays. He lab tested the actuator using a variety of methods to understand and improve its performance. With this new design, new possibilities for Disability Interactions have emerged. For instance, freehand erasable tactile drawing is now possible through Tacilia, which previously was very hard to make using existing materials. The actuation was also digitalised, so that computer generated text and graphics are rendered directly the display providing tactile and voice user interface for the students to improve their learning experience. He is now looking for ways to commercialise Tacilia so that it reaches the hands of every blind student and create a real impact.

A sheet of material with a regular matrix of flat and raised nodules
Novel tactile actuator that powers Tacilia
Tacilia’s proof of concept prototype
Tacilia’s proof of concept prototype

Tacilia is supported by the Graduate Research Scholarship from UCL, UCL – IITD Strategic Partner Seed Fund, UCLB Proof of Concept Fund and UK Aid funded AT2030 programme. The collaborators in this project are Catherine Holloway, Nicolai Marquardt, Mark Miodownik, PV Madhusudhan Rao, Vikas Upadhyay and Anchal Sharma.

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