Steve Landau of Touch Graphics Navigates Campus from the GCST
This month’s expert is Steve Landau who is the President and Director of Research at Touch Graphics which has recently developed the new Talking Campus Model located in the Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology (GCST). The Talking Model helps visitors to the Perkins campus get oriented, while students and staff can explore this familar environment in miniature scale. There are many ways to interact with the Talking Model, so almost anyone can comfortably operate and learn from this public map and directory system. The Model’s surface is pressure-sensitive, and when you touch different locations, you hear names and descriptions of each place.
What gave you the inspiration for this particular project?
I received a call from Perkins President, Steven Rothstein saying that he was going to be in New York and wanted to come to visit Touch Graphics. Steven me told about the building of the new Grousbeck Center and we talked about the opportunity to make something specifically for that building. I had been working on projects like this for at least 10 years but never completed something of this size or complexity, OR located in such a prominent place.
After a lot of experimentation, we invented a coating system – a kind of paint that you can apply to any surface to make it pressure-sensitive. This is different from the touch screens widely used in devices like the iPad. Existing touch screens are always flat and smooth, but we needed to add textures and 3D shapes. The pressure-sensitive coating can be applied to any non-conductive surface, so it was a perfect choice for the Perkins Talking Campus Model.
The idea of projecting light down onto the surface of the model was a no-brainer. We positioned a video projector directly above the model, and aiming the projecton straight down onto the model. This allows us to add colors, text and other imagery. The user can select normal mode, in which the model is illuminated in bright, high contrast colors, or can choose, “Google Earth” mode, where you can see the real world projected onto the map. This looks quite striking, and creates an amazing illusion that you are looking at a shrunken version of reality.
So much technology needs a great deal of care – how durable is this given that you must touch it to use its functions?
The pressure-sensitive paint is protected by a tough outer layer of epoxy that can be cleaned with soap and water. Any surface that people touch has to be durable and easy to clean.
I understand that Touch Graphics is working on some other projects that may assist individuals who are blind, can you tell me about them?
We have many different projects going on, all of which will lead to the introduction of new assistive devices and products. For example, we have teamed up with Dr. Joshua Miele of Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute to bring out the "next big thing" in audio-tactile graphics: the Talking Tactile Pen, or TTP. The pen acts as a "description probe", and plays relevant audio information about any part of a raised-line graphic as it is tapped by the pen's tip. It is based on a similar notion to the campus map except that it is used in a much more personal way.
We are using the TTP for lots of different purposes, including museum guides, transit maps, and classic STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) images, such as the periodic tables, cell diagrams, bridge design, etc. This low-cost product is being used right now by students with visual impairments to obtain the same information as their sighted peers.
How old is Touch Graphics and how did it get started?
About 15 years ago Karen Gourgey, director of Baruch College’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP) at the City University of New York (CUNY), contacted me because she wanted my help in creating a system to make tactile pictures using computers. This is how it all started. I was an architect at the time. Touch Graphics was incorporated 12 years ago and now we sell products all over the world.
The company develops ways to communicate spatial concepts using non-visual or extra-visual means. We interpret 3D forms in ways that are suitable for viewing by people who cannot perceive traditional print graphics. This is not limited to visually impaired individuals: many sighted people also enjoy exploring shapes with their hands, but they are often have to learn how to “look” at things in a new way before they can really benefit from this way of thinking about the world.
What’s it been like for you to work with Perkins?
It has been very exciting for me to work with Perkins because of the school’s long history of using and developing tactile materials. I was particularly inspired when I visited the museum in Howe Building, where you can see and touch examples of the creative wooden maps and games that have been designed and manufactured at Perkins during its long history. It has been very satisfying for me to now be carrying on that tradition through my work.