Now that in the past five years or so the research and development of tangible and haptic computer systems have accelerated a lot, mainly due to enhancements in actuation technology such as, various configurations of ElectroActive Polymers (also known as artificial muscles), I was wondering and trying to phrase an answer to what the wide spread of Tactile (Graphics) Displays might mean for the partially sighted community.
The comparison I realised and came up with, that transitioning from a single line refreshable braille display to a tactile pixel array based graphics display, may be just as revolutionary in accessing and manipulating information, as it was for the sighted community when a few decades ago we transitioned from command line to a Graphical User Interface, commonly referred to as a GUI. Of course most people will be familiar with what it meant for the wide spread of PCs and how people started to interact with these new hard and soft -ware devices. Now let’s not go into what it meant for the screen reader compatibility. We eventually managed to overcome this issue with more or less success, but definitely to a reasonable level. Screen reader users, let it be using speech or braille output can now interact with properly classed GUI items in a serial manner. Screen readers are able to flick through headings on a website, “walk” through elements of a Microsoft WYSIWYG editor and there is a simple way to tab around various parts of the operating system.
However, I believe with the advancement and wide spread of tangible computer systems, a truly GUI experience could be brought to those who can not rely on their vision. Instead of a single line of 40 characters, visually impaired computer users could get a feel for the layout of a 2D interface, thereby improving their understanding of graphical information such as, a simple diagram embedded in school lessons, the arrangement of web items on a website, browse and interact with any GUI based application and even design their own 2D content dragging and dropping objects on a tactile graphics display.
This revolutionary upgrade from braille command line style interaction to a tangible or haptic GUI is just around the corner. Regardless who, which organisation, does it first, does it the cheapest, what technology they are using, what purpose their TGD aims to address; at the end it isn’t the product designers who decide that their product is the best, but the end users who will rate which product suits their needs the best. All we need to do is make it happen, establish requirements to enable the wide spread of TGUI and I am sure, the impact on the lives of partially sighted people will be enormous.