The primary objective of this project is to design a 3D audio-tactile globe that enables blind and low-vision users to perceive geo-spatial information. Conventional learning and teaching tools such as textbooks, diagrams, graphs, maps and models are designed and implemented to enhance both formal instruction and self-learning. However, blind and low-vision users cannot access all of these available resources. Specifically, when the learner is visually impaired but the subject is inherently spatial and tangible (such as geography), traditional aids provide limited information. In order to teach and learn geography, alternative learning aids such as raised-line graphics, braille maps, audio maps, oral instructions and 3D models are available to learners facing visual impairments. However, these alternative learning aids are expensive, less readily available, and pose several challenges for the learner, making them less useful.
This project employs co-design as an approach to prototype and evaluate four different iterations of a cross-sensory globe. Co-design is an inclusive design methodology which involves designing products by including the stakeholders, designers, researchers and end-users in the design process in order to help ensure that the end product meets the needs of its intended user base. In this project, I gained more direct and first-hand insights about challenges of alternate learning aids through my exposure to a homemade DIY audio-tactile globe built by one of my co-design participants, P1. P1 developed a globe by combining a consumer product (Intelliglobe) and a raised-line overlay (developed and manufactured by the American Printing House for the Blind—APH). The self-made globe, while much more useful for P1 than traditional globes, still presented certain challenges. For example, it was difficult to distinguish the shapes and sizes of landmasses because of its very subtle and low relief. Thus, it was difficult and time-consuming to perform tasks such as locating specific countries. Informed by P1’s experience and to address the limitations of his homemade globe, I recruited P1 for multiple co-design sessions where he helped me design and test an interactive audio-tactile globe.
The final product uses 3D printed detachable continents to provide geo-spatial tactile information about the Earth’s concrete structures, such as elevations, sizes and shapes of landmasses. It is coupled with a wireless touch audio pen which provides complementary abstract information such as the city, country and continent names. The cross-sensory globe supports learning about: 1) locations and shapes of continents, 2) distances among the continents, 3) sizes of landmasses, and 4) relief features. The final product reveals the advantages of using a 3D audio-tactile globe for conveying information more effectively to blind and low-vision learners.
Following a long-term co-design methodology helped improve P1’s user experience in learning geography by addressing the challenges he identified in his homemade globe. My design approach retained and replicated the strengths of his globe (such as audio labels) in the final product. In addition, I invited four (P2-5) additional participants to evaluate and test the final version of my prototype by completing some basic tasks suggested by P1. User evaluation results show that this cross-sensory globe helped all the blind participants to gain a much detailed mental picture of the world as compared to using braille maps and raised line graphics. The remaining sections describe the background for the problem, a detailed environmental scan and my entire prototyping and design process.