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Information from Symbols and Illustrations: how to get it without vision

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - InSIght (Information from Symbols and Illustrations: how to get it without vision)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

InSIght focused on understanding what information people who are visually impaired get from symbols and illustrations. One in 30 Europeans experiences sight loss, including one in three individuals over 65 years of age (European Blind Union; EBU). These individuals cannot read the newspaper or the name of a street, recognise a face or read a symbol, use a map or an illustration: they rely on their sense of touch. Symbols and illustrations typically provide important, often life- saving information – ‘flammable’, ‘fire evacuation route’, ‘poisonous’, etc.

{image - poison} {Image - Flammable}

Symbols and illustrations are pictures: they embrace the conventional shape of certain phenomena (Oxford Dictionary), i.e. the configuration of angles, curves, and straight lines. Individuals who rely on their sense of touch seek information from tactile symbols and illustrations; these are usually embossed, i.e. they stand out in relief. Those who rely on their sense of touch mix up over 70% of angles and curves, stating the following – ‘Angles and curves are the same thing.’; ‘An angle is a pointed or sharp curve. Also an angle is curved.’; ‘A curve is more open than an angle.’; ‘When the shape has more than two lines, then it is a curve; not an angle.’ Tactile symbols and illustrations tend to be embossed copies of the corresponding visual symbol or illustration, which are rarely, if ever, altered (e.g. in line straightness and/or curviness) to make it easier to perceive angles, curves, and straight lines correctly.

The accessibility symbol provides an example of the problems caused by mixing up angles and curves; the mix-up makes it hard to make out the body and the wheel. His or her actively exploring fingers become caught up in the wheel (circle) and he or she thus fails to detect the hip and knee (angles). This makes it impossible to discriminate the accessibility symbol from any other circle.

The accessibility symbol (in which the white lines would be embossed):

{image - accesibility symbol} {image - accesibility symbol curves}

The actual symbol How the symbol may be represented if angles are perceived as curves

The Euro symbol (€) provides another example. If angles and curves are mixed up, this may very easily be mistaken for the capital E. Mixing up angles and curves also causes problems at school. Consider the illustration of the Pythagorean triangle. If the pupil perceives the 90° angle as a curve, he or she will find it difficult to grasp the concept the illustration is intended to convey; the Pythagorean theorem. Still, tactile symbols and illustrations are important: more than 90% of people who need braille do not read it well (European Blind Union; EBU).

The primary objective of InSIght was to investigate in which configuration(s) of shape features angles are perceived as angles, curves as curves, and straight lines as straight lines – and if

misperceived, why. InSIght aimed to contribute to the development of universal design standards for tactile symbols and illustrations (cf. the EU 2010-2020 Disability Strategy).
InSIght conducted a series of five experiments; with simple geometric shapes (one angle or one curve) and configurations of shape features (containing more than one angle/curve). Open and close as well as concave and convex angles and curves were included. InSIght soon widened its horizons towards multimodal information. In particular, whether there are correspondences between tactile and auditory shape information, and furthermore whether people’s recognition of simple geometric tactile shapes and/or configurations of tactile shape features could be improved by playing corresponding auditory shape information. The auditory shape information included the spoken words ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’ as well as angle and curve shape-melodies. InSIght created the novel shape-melodies, using a sine wave generator and pitch bend, by mimicking the melody (i.e. duration and frequency) of the spoken words ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’: ‘Bouba’ was the starting point for the various curves, and ‘kiki’ for the various angles. In two experiments the participants were asked to draw a shape that corresponded to the auditory shape information, and in three experiments the participants were asked to recognise the various simple geometric shapes and configurations of shape features when corresponding and non-corresponding auditory shape information was played. Three groups of participants were included; congenitally blinded, blindfolded-sighted (representing individuals who have lost vision recently), and fully sighted (controls). InSIght collected accuracy, drawing, speed, and think-aloud data. One manuscript has been submitted for possible publication in an international peer-reviewed academic journal, and one academic manuscript is in preparation.
Moreover, the Oxford University Museums invited InSIght to collaborate with one of their multidisciplinary public outreach projects, called Multisensory Access – bringing visual art to life through touch and sound. The aim of this collaboration was to optimise the touch elements of tactile pictures (of visual paintings and fragile 3D objects), e.g. the line straightness and curviness, the line fineness, and the amount and type of textures. Working with the existing Touch Tours, provided by the Oxford University Museums, a focus group was established. The participants, born fully sighted, had lost their vision after the age of 18. There were 12 focus group meetings and eight one-on-one meetings, over 15 months. The participants were asked to describe what and how they explored the tactile pictures. They were also asked to comment on the various alterations, e.g. in line straightness and curviness, line fineness, and amount and type of textures. Think-aloud data and novel touch tracking data (recording the movements and pressures of up to six fingers) were collected. One academic manuscript and one non-academic information pack on tactile pictures are in preparation. Multisensory Access – bringing visual art to life through touch and sound was awarded one of the three prizes at the Humanities Innovation Challenge Competition 2017, University of Oxford. The project is still ongoing.
Accessibility symbol curve
Accessibility symbol