Call to Action #7 – A Leap forward for Tactile Graphic Access!

Like most all of you who live with low or no vision, every so often I get pulled into trialing or promoting a new accessible technology.  No doubt, lots has changed over the past half century, and sheer self interest keeps me coming back despite the often-disappointing results. But every so often something truly ground-breaking comes along.

Long ago my tenacity for advocating for access to assistive technologies earned me the reputation of a “snowplough”. It hasn’t defined my career, but it’s certainly occupied major chunks of my time, so much so that my work was recognised on several occasions, ( the Governor General Meritorious Service Medal, the Head of Public Service Award, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the CNIB Century of Change Award, and others.) I even got drawn into serving as an Accessibility Advisor to the Senate of Canada. Recognition has never been my motivation but seems to go hand-in-hand with implementing transformative innovations.

A field of particular interest is access to images using touch.  I have spent considerable time, effort and resources  on turning braille dots into tactile graphics. I’ve personally owned three braille printers and two braille displays. Up until now, the best was a collaboration with ViewPlus and their Tiger printer. The printer produces three heights of braille dots that can be spaced closely together to create rudimentary 3D braille graphics. You can still find my ViewPlus endorsement on their website from over 20 years ago. But, my focus on accessibility hasn’t always been accessible graphics.

As the founder and manager of Industry Canada’s Web Accessibility Office (1999-2006), I conceived and funded the creation of Web-4-All and its pilot testing in 1,000 communities across Canada. The technology was the first to implement IMS Accessibility for Learner Information Package guidelines, and would go on to become Access-4-All, an open source standard that now forms the foundation of Apple’s access solutions.

I also directed Web Accessibility Office resources towards funding the pilot testing of tactile map technology developed by Natural Resources Canada. The maps were printed using thermo-printers and a swell-type  paper that would lift the graphics when exposed to high heat. The tactile maps were placed over a touch tablet, and by pushing down on any part of the map, the tablet would speak information about that specific area.

More recently, braille tablets are being marketed that can provide basic graphic information much like one might see but not feel on an Etch-A-sketch. It’s like binary code in that dots are either raised or not, generating very low-resolution tactile graphics.

The issue with raised dots or line graphics is that they convey limited information (i.e. no colour, depth, fine detail or life-like texture), but are useful for displaying maps, sketches, designs, or rudimentary drawings. I still use my Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit including the plastic Mylar sheets to express mathematic formulas. A simple low-tech solution that served well when I took university statistics and economics.

About 25 years back a company in Windsor Ontario invented an ink jet printer that sprayed multiple layers of ink creating a raised line, dots and shapes, but it never quite caught on. Newer printers now spray quick-drying plastic that generates similar results. Again, it’s technology invented to generate rudimentary tactile graphics, but has promise.

Without doubt, what many of us desire are 3D printers that can print actual 3D models. However, health concerns over operating such printers in closed rooms, and their dependence on 3D graphic files, have limited their usability. Plus, who has room in their home for storing 3D printed models. A few busks of your loved ones sure, but at some point, your personal space would begin to look like an art gallery’s gift shop.

The Be My Eyes Chat GPT4 technology is also amazing in its ability to describe images. You can also drill down using questions to extract finer details. After trialing all manner of colour identifiers, this tool is light-years ahead in its ability to describe the colour of my fishing lures, and even photos of the fish I catch.

A few months back I was contacted by Canon to see if I would participate in a new campaign featuring its tactile printing technology. I was eager to find out more and headed to London. I had no idea what to expect, but what I was shown blew my mind.

On March 6th 2024 Canon launched its“ World Unseen” campaign. As part of this activity, Canon created four videos of low vision / blind people experiencing this revolutionary technology. This included mine, where I was able to feel a photo of the last male northern white rhinoceros, photographed by National Geographic photographer and Canon Ambassador, Brent Stirton. Link here to watch Brent introduce me to his photo, and the other three amazing videos.

This wonderful moment was made possible by Canon’s elevated print technology (launched in 2013), in which its PRISMAelevate XL software can determine which elements of the print will be textured and elevated. The large flat-bed Arizona printers then print the images with an elevation.

The result is that Canon can turn photographs into tactile images, which allow blind people to feel the picture while still preserving the full colour and clarity of the actual photograph. And what’s really nice is that the tactile aspect of the print only adds 2 millimetres of height to each print, so you could actually collect many such prints one day without having to install shelving.

I’m already dreaming how Canon’s technology is going to help me visualise nature, and pretty much everything else of importance in my life once the service comes online. Canon doesn’t currently offer this technology to consumers directly but is looking for more partners to adopt the technology to bring it to a wider audience. We need more organisations to step up and make this incredibly important accessibility service more widely available.

It’s been said, “one picture is worth a thousand words.” Chat GPT4 may be able to describe photos, but even if it did use a thousand words, it still wouldn’t give the type of access provided by Canon’s tactile printer. Just like a screen reader for the blind is limited in its ability to provide literacy, not everything can be accessed through hearing.

Replacing the ability to see is still a long way off, but we are getting closer. I’m already creating a folder of digital files that I want printed, starting with pictures of my family. The wonders of the world will be next, and for sure all my favorite lakes and rivers  where I like to fish, camp and explore.