Perkins partners with new MIT class to imagine innovative assistive technologies

A new MIT architecture course explores ‘how visual spatial experiences can be expressed in non-visual modalities’

Four people sit a table with laptops and speak.

The MIT students visited Perkins School for the Blind on Wednesday to present their final projects.

January 31, 2019

How can movement in live performance be made more accessible to people with low vision? Can 3D printing be used more creatively to convey academic information to people with visual impairment? Is there a way to better enable someone who’s blind to independently navigate a cafe?

These were some of the questions at the heart of a new MIT architecture course, put on in collaboration with Perkins School for the Blind, which focused on utilizing senses other than vision to enhance the way people experience visual spaces.

But the enrolled students didn’t just ponder those questions. As part of their coursework, they visited Perkins, met with experts on staff to learn more about the issues and endeavored to develop prototypical assistive technologies to provide answers.

“It was very informative coming to Perkins,” said Athina Papadopoulou, one of the course’s two teachers. “We learned the importance of asking, ‘how can we incorporate the other senses in the design of anything?’”

For Perkins, the partnership served to build on the organization’s commitment to building products with accessibility in mind, as well as the need to collaborate with users who have different disabilities in that process.

“It was great to hear the MIT class ask questions about what would really help people who were blind,” said Jennifer Arnott, research librarian at Perkins and one of the expert staff involved in the course. “Every time we can remind people to think about accessibility, or different ways to access information, the impact is felt for years.”

Perkins has worked with MIT in the past, though this was the first time it was involved in helping conduct an actual course. And the staff were on hand again Wednesday when the MIT students made a return visit to present their final projects, which addressed real problems they discovered while on campus for their initial visit.

To make live performances more accessible, for instance, student Jacqueline Qua workshopped an interface that would vibrate to mirror even the most intricate movement on a stage. Alan Lundgard imagined a 3D printing technique to diminish ambiguity in tactile information by imbuing each element with different physical properties. And to make cafes more accessible, Michelle Xie developed a tactile map equipped to vibrate to reveal the whereabouts of empty seats or even where the users’ friends are seated.

“Coming here, I learned a lot about accessibility and even just the importance of thinking about accessibility,” said Xie.

That, more than any one project imagined by students, was what the class was all about and why people like Arnott hope the two organizations can conduct the course again.

“We're not just talking about this project, but about the future projects these students take on, the way they consider accessibility in those projects and the people they tell about the class,” added Arnott. “Each partnership can affect many, many people down the road, and I love that.”