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Web Posted on: December 7, 1998

Tactile Graphics - as easy as that!

Max O. Lange
Blista-Brailletec gGmbH
Industriestr. 11
35041 Marburg
Phone +49 6421 8020
Fax +49 6421 80214


Overview of tactile graphics production methods
Integrated solutions are possible
Audiovisual access - the TACIS solution
Plotters, Embossers, Printers

Overview of tactile graphics production methods

While there are excellent tools for the production and printing of braille these days, including the translation from text to contracted braille, the same is not true of tactile graphics used to teach mathematics or science to visually impaired students, or to print maps and plans. There is still a lot of handwork involved. Production cost for raised graphics is typically very high, and the quality of printout varies from satisfactory to barely acceptable.

Much of tactile graphics production today is still not computer controlled. Quick, one-off graphics are usually hand-drawn on plastic film or printed on swell paper, while larger and more often used graphics are done in thermoform paper from specially prepared stereotypes. Though the latter method offers a satisfactory raised height and tactile quality, the preparation of the stereotypes is time-consuming and requires an expert. Rapid prototyping technologies have been used to do this and still are, but a rapid prototyping machine is way beyond the means of the typical school or home user, and the software involved is complex and costly. Stereotypes can also be designed on a 3D CAD system and milled in metal, which is economic for large scale production of tactile graphics.

At Brailletec, tools for all three methods - hand drawing, swell paper, and thermoform copies - are sold, and have been for a long time. However, in order to make tactile graphics production easy, it is necessary to use a fully computer integrated approach. This involves creating a tactile graphic on-screen and printing it out, either on a special embosser or on another device. The following paragraphs deal with some such solutions.

Many modern braille printers have a "graphics" mode, usually one where dots are embossed in a regular raster. Some, such as Brailletec's Elotype, leave the raster in order to create smooth curves. And some devices now coming onto the market print tactile images directly onto paper using some form of relief generating material. This is, up to now, the easiest and most advanced way to create raised graphics, In each case, software is needed to create the tactile image in the first place. It makes little sense to try and emboss a line drawing without any conversion, as the result will generally be useless due to the low resolution of embossers. Modern braille editing software can handle embossed graphics. Programs such as the Duxbury braille translator, the ET graph X, or ProfessionalBraille all support it.

BrailleGraf by Brailletec goes a step further, being an object oriented tactile drawing program. A similar approach is the PictureBraille software from Quantum. The TACIS audio tactile graphics workstation, at the very high end, comes with its own graphics translator. Probably the most advanced solution yet, however, is PRINT which can print graphics directly from a Windows program, and automatically handle the conversion to a relief image with its advanced color-to-relief translation software.

Integrated solutions are possible

Creating tactile graphics for a large audience, e.g. for school use, generally involves first making some proofs, changing or editing them, and finally printing a larger number of copies. Ideally, these are combined with text into books.

In order to do this economically, it is necessary to use a computer throughout for creating proofs and final versions, and preferably employ the same software for proofing and final version. Brailletec offers such integrated solutions that I'll describe as an example. My first scenario is a school application with mostly graphics and little text, that needs to be printed in small to medium numbers of copies. I'd then use the BrailleGraf software, with an Elotype 4E as output device. Such a system could be up and running - for a sighted operator - for about 3000 US$. The only additional hardware that's needed is a Windows-capable computer.

The second scenario involves producing books with much text and some graphics. I'd then take the ProfessionalBraille software and a Magnum printer for proofing and medium volume production. Both packages will easily fit into any existing braille press and if a Puma VI and plate or rotary press is present, they can be used for high-volume production, from the exact same files as the proofing printer uses. Tactile lines and speech output can be integrated into either. A typical Magnum-based workplace with a tactile line, scanner, computer, etc., would be around 30000 US$. In both cases, a single-source solution can be provided and in both cases, the solutions are open to later extension and modification.

Audiovisual Access - the TACIS Solution

TACIS - Tactile Acoustic Computer interaction System -allows the user to access graphics by three information channels: Touch, Tone landscapes, and Voice. It is a near-real time system, meaning that it is possible to refresh a tactile image, zoom in or out, or switch to another image, in less than a minute. TACIS was developed as a mobility training aid in a European union backed project. it consists of a fast, quiet A3 tactile graphics printer, touchpad with two levels of sensitivity, audio out put, and software modules. The user can print out a graphic which may have text attached to it, put it on a special touchpad, explore it by touching it and hearing tonescapes that represent graphic features, and hear attached context sensual text information. It is ideally suited for displaying and rapidly learning to understand relief maps. The user would explore the map, then press a given spot a little harder, and here a spoken comment relating to it.

There is a special keyboard available on the touchpad with zooming and moving keys, and a normal MF2 keyboard can also be attached. "Dublin by Touch" is an application where a tactile map of Dublin in Ireland has been created which is used to learn about Dublin. Various other tactile maps are also available.

I have presented TACIS in some detail because it is the nearest thing to live graphic multimedia that a blind user is going to see anytime soon. You can learn in greater detail about this exciting project from the TACIS consortium.

Plotters, Embossers, and Printers

As I stated above, most companies now offer so-called graphics capable embossers. With the exception of the Brailletec and Index products, I'd say that none of them were designed with graphics as a principal application in mind. For it is not just graphics that's necessary, but graphics that has smooth lines with no steps and with a dot spacing below the tactile resolution of the fingers - that is, below about 2 millimeters. You should look for those qualities if you're looking for tactile graphics.

One interesting product is the Graphtact plotter, which was originally developed in Quebec and is now continued in France. For pure graphics, its plots are very useful. But for its slowness and projected high price, it will never be viable for combining graphics and text. The PRINT printer - due to go on sale in 1999 - prints braille, ink-print, and tactile graphics directly from a Windows environment at one page per minute. The tactile quality is excellent for text and for graphics, it is only surpassed by Thermoform copies in height and by nothing in crispness and definition. As it uses a standard printer driver, users don't even need to learn new, specialized software to create tactile text and graphics - Word will do just fine. We believe PRINT will make quite an impact in the tactile graphics market, and hope you'll take a look at it.

There are, of course, other projects - by Tektronix, not least - involving direct-output tactile graphics, especially for the high-end sector. With this formidable armada of new technology products on the horizon and in some cases right here, we believe tactile graphics will vastly expand and the world of graphical information will really become accessible to those who hitherto could only dream of it.


TACIS final report: EU TIDE office, project 1229, 1998 Graphtact, le graphique tactile: Handialog, Paris 1998 Tiresias - an international guide to Equipment for Blind and Partially Sighted Persons; RNIB, Peterborough 1997 Brailletec, catalog update 1999 PRINT information page, http://brailletec.de/print.htm