Graphed line equation being inserted into a PIAF machine & text

Picture in a Flash: A Tactile Image is Worth a Thousand Words

Picture in a Flash uses special paper & heat to create raised line drawings. This article outlines the basics of the process and operation of the machine.

NOTE: For more ways of creating tactile graphics, please see the article Creating Tactile Graphics With Firebird Software.

As I was going through school to become a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, I had to take an Introduction to Orientation and Mobility class.  One of the projects was to create a tactile map of a location that was familiar to you and provide orientation information you would share with a student based on that map.  

I was very excited because I had TONS of ideas on how to make the map both interesting and informative.  I decided to create a tactile map of a local convenience store.  I used at least five different materials and spent hours on the map. I was very proud of the finished product.  The instructor, however, was less than impressed for a variety of reasons.  But probably the most valid of those reasons was that the map itself wasn’t practical since a TVI wouldn’t have the time to create such an intricate map made of so many different materials.  In other words, it was too much and too overwhelming.

At the time, I was kind of heartbroken because I really had spent a lot of time and thought on the project.  Now I can look back and understand what the professor meant.  The average itinerant teacher doesn’t have time or materials to create such a complex map or graphic.  It would have been wiser to use one or two materials to create the map and make it simple and streamlined. 

Several years later, the Picture in a Flash was produced and it was a game changer for many TVIs who needed to create simple and on the spot tactile drawings for their students.  

What is the Picture in a Flash? Photo of graphed math equation page being inserted into a PIAF machine.

The Picture in a Flash (PIAF for short) uses special paper to create tactile images in a very short period of time.  Manufactured by Harpo and distributed in the United States by Humanware, the PIAF is a great tool for creating tactile images for anything from simple maps to more complex diagrams.  

How does it work?

The PIAF uses a consistent and even heating source to produce a chemical reaction in specialized paper.  The lines on the Capsule Paper (also known as Swell Paper) will expand when exposed to the heat in the PIAF machine.  As it heats, lines on the paper that is put through the machine will “swell” up so they become tactile.  The longer the paper is exposed to the heat in the PIAF, the more pronounced the line.  However, it should be noted that overexposure to the heat can cause some distortions in the lines and an uneven feeling across the entire tactile image, so even heating and timing is important.  Learning the balance takes time and practice.  

The PIAF has a knob allowing the user to adjust both the speed at which paper travels through the machine and the intensity of the heat.  This allows for the adjustment of how “intense” or “raised” the lines come out. For example, if there is a need for very thin and sharp lines, the PIAF should be set to allow the paper to move faster through heated area of the machine.   If the lines are not raised enough, the paper can be run through the machine a second, third, and even fourth time.  

Creating the image

Obtaining an image is sometimes half the challenge. After all, the machine does best with uncomplicated line drawings that are not overly crowded.  Sometimes that means modifying a diagram provided to us or even creating one ourselves.  Images can be created or modified on a computer using Adobe Creative Cloud (which contains Illustrator and Spark) or Google Drawings can be used for less complex editing.  Images can also be copied from textbooks or worksheets if appropriate.  

Additionally, there are sources for various tactile graphics libraries in the resources section of this article.  Specialized pens are also available that can be used to write or draw directly on the capsule paper.  Really, the possibilities are endless.  

How Does the Image Get on the Special Paper?

Images can be copied onto the special capsule paper via a photocopier or printer. High carbon pens that can be used on the capsule purchased from the vender can also be used to create a freehand graphic directly on the capsule paper if needed.  

Placement of paper in the copier varies form machine to machine, but the rule of thumb is to make sure that the image you wish to make tactile is printed on the dull beige colored side that is less smooth than the other brighter white side.  

It’s All in the Carbon

As mentioned above, the chemical reaction that takes place to allow the lines on the paper to be raised is due to the presence of carbon in the ink.  So, in general, use of a pen will not work because the carbon content of the ink is not high enough.  

Thoughts and Conclusions

Though there are many ways to create tactile graphics including Wikki Sticksthe Draftsman, using the Firebird software mentioned at the start of this article, and countless other ways, use of Picture in a Flash is probably the simplest and quickest way to create on the spot tactile graphics for students.  It’s easy to use, so paraprofessionals can be easily trained in how to transfer an image to the Capsule Paper.  It is not too heavy, so can be transported to different locations as needed (though it probably is not advisable to do so frequently).

There is an initial monetary and time investment getting started with this technology, but it is not nearly as much as purchasing specialized software and embossing equipment.  

One thing to keep an eye out for is that, over time, the PIAF needs to be sent in to be adjusted and calibrated so the heat source is even and consistent.  If you or your paraprofessional or even your student notice that the quality of the images being produced is beginning to deteriorate, it may be time to send the machine in.  Contact your Humanware representative for details on the proper procedure.  


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APH Tactile Graphics Image Library

Harpo’s Collection of Images

Harpo’s Collection of Example Graphics

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