Tactile surfaces

Hello my dear reading audience!

We’ve written a post about a braille smartphone before, but there are other types of tactile surfaces, not specifically targeted towards visually impaired people, that follow the same reasoning: to be able to interact with a device without having to see the screen. The one in particular I’d like to talk about today is one from a rather uncommon source: the Disney research labs.

Among many projects, they have done research to develop what they call the “Tesla Touch” surface. The goal is to have a tangible touch-screen, not in the sense of having actual buttons pop out of it, like other projects have looked into before, but in the sense of being able to feel different types of surfaces depending on the screen input. The technology is based around having a changing oscillating electric field in the screen, which affects how much resistance you feel when you  slide your finger across it. The technical details are written down in their 2010 research paper on the topic.

The more obvious ways to use this type of technology for blind people would be to have them sense when they hover over icons, and have them receive a special type of sensation depending on what the icon is. Although it is not accurate enough to display braille, since you are only able to create a single electric field across the entire surface depending on where touch is registered (which also means you’ll have a single resistive signal for all fingers you use), it will be able to give some sense of feedback from the visual contents of the screen through touch. Couple this with screen readers, and the device gains a lot of extra functionality when targeted towards the visually impaired.

Also, it is not entirely unthinkable that the accuracy is improvable, since capacitive touchscreens nowadays already use multiple electrodes. Similar setups might be able to generate multiple local electric fields, which might enable braille. But that is speculation of course.

Surface using Tesla Touch technology

The big advantage of this type of screen over the reformable ones (where buttons pop out of/the braille smartphone etc), is that there is obviously no mechanical movement in these, which makes maintenance, but also developer-friendliness and power consumption a lot better.

Screens like this could be built into regular tablets and smartphone devices, you’ll have a single device that can be used for visually impaired, and non-visually impaired people, which could once more decrease the stigmatization a little. It offers functionality for both, and it can be adapted to react differently depending on the user, in the sense that people with full sight need less feedback, but can for example still use it to simulate the feeling of a keyboard or other things, while more visually impaired people can use the functionality in a broader way.

If you can think of other applications for this type of screen, or if you have a preference between this and the formable screens, let us know!

Koenraad

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