Digital Crave

New Disney invention leads American charge in blind-friendly tech

Disney

Disney has conquered computer animation, given a home to Marvel's superheroes, and purchased a galaxy far, far away. Now they're working on a potentially revolutionary invention: Flat touchscreens that let users feel the shape and texture of pictured objects – a virtual reality that could change the way blind people interact with technology.

"The technology is called 'tactile rendering of 3D features,' and an early version of a rendering algorithm has already been developed by engineers at Disney Research in Pittsburgh. The process behind it is, predictably, both technical and confusing, but the basic premise is that small, electronic pulses can trick your fingers into perceiving bumps and texture, even if the surface is actually flat," writes Caitlin Dewey of The Wall Street Journal.

This is not a brand new technology, according to Dewey, who says scientists have known since 2001 that friction is the predominant force that lets people perceive textures.

"But Disney’s findings, which the company will present at a user interface symposium in Scotland this week, suggests sweeping applications in devices we already use, like smartphones and tablets. Imagine reading a topographic map and actually feeling the hills and valleys. Or — in the far more distant and ambitious future — shopping for something online and feeling it through your phone before you buy."

Samsung

“Touch interaction has become the standard for smartphones, tablets and even desktop computers, so designing algorithms that can convert the visual content into believable tactile sensations has immense potential for enriching the user experience,” says Ivan Poupyrev, director of Disney’s Interaction Group.

Textured screens have endless applications for consumer interaction, but it's their potential to improve user experiences for blind or disabled users that is getting a lot of attention. (And though it's years from completion, you can get a taste of the this technology here.)

"The technology can translate 2D videos to 3D tactile renderings in real time. And more distant applications could potentially revolutionize fields like education and medicine."

This comes at a time when the US is enjoying praise for its online accessibility laws. Euractiv.com reports the Europe Union (EU) is trailing behind the US on online accessibility laws that make it easier for the visually impaired to access the internet or use a smartphone.

"In the United States, a big part of business has moved online and American companies have a legal obligation to make their websites just as accessible for disabled groups as their brick-and-mortar stores. These laws are aimed at making life easier for disabled people so that they do not have to rely on wheelchair ramps and self-opening doors to do their grocery shopping, for example," writes euractiv.com.

Still, some companies refuse to make their websites more accessible. National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf is winning legal victories against such companies.

The Wall Street Journal reports that these hurdles facing the blind and disabled should improve when the US Department of Justice issues new regulations on website accessibility later this year. These could require websites to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind. It could also impose captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf. According to the paper, the costs of making a website accessible to disabled groups vary based on the complexity of the site.

"It is also much cheaper to build accessibility features into a new site than to retrofit an old one."

The EU has yet to establish rules on online accessibility for public or private websites. Countries are free to determine how blind people should be helped to shop on the internet. Quoted in the euractive.com story, María Jesús Varela Méndez of the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind says the US is way ahead of Europe when it comes to online accessibility laws.

Apple

"This has been good for the blind and partially sighted because the US is a very big market and since that law entered into force, important companies and manufacturers such as Google, Samsung and Apple have taken into account the characteristics we need to use their smartphones or tablets. Things are improving day by day. In the case of Europe, the situation is completely different because the laws are different in each member state," Méndez says.

EU members states have proposed laws to would improve blind people’s online access or access to technology, but often fail to complete or implement them. The spokesperson from the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind says national associations for blind people were on an “impossible mission” and would prefer that the European Blind Union (EBU) press for a common EU law.

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