Journey: Visual arts for the blind.

Journey is a publication design system for the blind, with a focus on making visual arts accessible to the visually impaired.

The publication system consists of two main components:

  • The physical interface
  • The digital interface

Both of these components also have speculative versions which aren't practically implementable right now, but could eventually come to life via (predicted) technical evolution.

Book (Physical)

Physical mediums offer something crucial when designing for the blind—tactility. Brushing over a page to find different forms embossed on the sheet is a tried and trusted way of deciphering images.

No ink made it into the final book; instead, everything has been embossed on the paper by etching the design into wood and then running the paper over it through a printing press, resulting in a purely tactile design.

Tactile illustrations are already used in a variety of contexts. (Source: CAL-tac™ Illustrated Alphabet Flashcards)

I considered including the text in Latin format within the book to make it readable for those unfamiliar with braille, but finally decided against it since it led to a more cramped layout.

This could also make for an interesting coffee table book for those with vision, due to the novelty of it being purely embossed.

A variety of experiments with different layouts.

I also designed custom 3D printed binding rings, which helped the book lay flat on the table with minimum distortion.

The yellow filament establishing visual consistency with the rest of the project was a happy bonus. :)

Index

One of primary functions of the book—aside from making pictorial content accessible to the blind—was to house the index.

As evident from the sketch, the index is what connects the various interfaces in this publication system. How is that achieved?

Every item of the index is associated with a pattern-based 4 character code. This code can be punched into any of the other interfaces to refer to the same item. This makes searching for specific items easier, as you don't need to type out the entire title of a chapter/book (a difficult task without sight, especially without hefty braille-specific keyboards).

Various layout and typography experiments.

The index is structured in a tree format with 3 stages:

  • Branched roots at the bottom referencing various points of "discovery" (this could be showcase books, beginner's art tutorials, etc). This stage is meant to garner the interest of the reader.
  • A linear trunk in the middle which guides the reader through the initial stages of learning the fundamentals of any given technique/discipline/methodology in a simplified manner.
  • A branched exploration phase at the top referencing various directions which could be interesting after having learnt the fundamentals.
Implementation of the index in the final book.

Audio Reader (Digital)

The digital audio reader provides the reader with the primary textual content of a book.

The layout is designed to make the most used functions easy to find without sight. This was done by placing these functions close to the edges and corners of the screen.

I include the text in a dyslexia-friendly typeface (OpenDyslexic) to open up the platform to those who might not necessarily be visually impaired, but would benefit from an accessibility-oriented publication system.

Specific chapters/books can be pulled up through their associated code as established in the index.

Walkthrough

Speculative Iterations

I also created speculative versions of these interfaces, the primary difference being that these interfaces are based on where current technology might go based on trends.

As a result, the prototypes for these interfaces are more abstracted from the way they might be implemented practically and rely more on interpretation.

Gesture-based Digital Audio Reader

This is a speculative version of the digital reader which relies on hand gestures for navigation, hence removing any remaining guesswork involved in pressing buttons on a flat screen.

I used handtrack.js, which is a library which allows for browser-based real-time handtracking, making it compatible with my browser-based prototype.

As is evident in the demo video, there can be issues with the handtracking depending on lighting conditions and the orientation of the hand. These could be remedied with a IR sensor-based detection which wouldn’t have to rely on the RGB camera input.

A more polished implementation of the tracking could also allow for finger pose detection, which would result in more sophisticated control over the interface.

Tactile Reader

The tactile reader is a setup of 6 solenoids hooked up to an Arduino, each of which represent one of the 6 dots which make up a character of braille.

This reader is a portable, low-cost solution to having what is essentially a braille e-book. In the future, higher density tactile displays may be able to display not only a higher number of characters at once, but also elements like tactile illustrations.

I kept the breadboard setup for my prototype, but this entire setup would be much smaller and more portable when made using a PCB. The button could also be placed in the same shell as the solenoids, which would enable one-handed use.
Some of the shell designs which didn’t work out.

Potential Improvements

(At the time of writing this section) It has been a while since I did this project, and there are a number of shortcomings which should have been addressed. The biggest, most important one was the scarcity of user testing. Due to time constraints and the specific target audience, there was no point at which I tested the publication system as a whole with a visually impaired person (or even with, for instance, an abled person with a blindfold). That means this project is essentially a set of hypotheses based on secondary research, which would have to be tested for the sake of validation.

Having addressed the elephant in the room, here are some other shortcomings which could be improved upon:

  • The codes associated with the indexing system are unnecessarily arbitrary. Since it only exists in the form of nameless iconography, it becomes difficult to convey verbally—or even, for that matter, textually without emojis.
  • The digital audio reader tries to cater to both the visually impaired and the dyslexic. This drifts the focus away from the core audience, while not fully catering to the new audience either. The digital audio reader doesn't have a "browse" feature, which means the only way to pull up a text is via the codes in the index. This user flow would fail for anyone unfamiliar with braille, as the index is only embossed braille with no Latin text or printed material in general (due to my decision to make the book cater purely to the visually impaired). The problem ends up being the inconsistency of the scope of the target audience between the physical and digital publication.
  • The tactile reader should be tested with a multi-button setup, with separate buttons for forward and backward. This could possibly be a 4 button setup laid out to mirror the index codes, or a 6 button setup mirroring a single braille character (similar to how certain braille keyboards work).

Of course, these are just updated hypotheses which would also have to be validated.