ISU Researcher Strives to Improve Touch Communication

  • August 18, 2014
  • By Eleni Upah     
Looking into ways to make braille easier for visually impaired students via touch technology.


Cris Schwartz and his team of Iowa State University researchers are exploring how to improve learning materials for the visually impaired community.

Before braille gained widespread popularity, several methods of touch communication were used to help the visually impaired read. Literary braille, according to Schwartz, is mostly consistent in its use, but using it with subjects like math and chemistry is challenging.

Technical braille – mathematical equations or chemical reactions using symbols, numbers, and letters – is difficult to translate with the present systems of braille.

Schwartz, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State, is looking into ways to make braille easier for the visually impaired to understand the complex information in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by adding more components to braille. This is partly done by exploring the theoretical limits of communication through a person’s touch.

His research group uses different tactile measuring devices, such as sensors, to try and understand the effects of contact between different surfaces. Braille is part of that research, especially pertaining to the frictional behavior between human skin and other surfaces.

“We want to know what role friction plays when somebody reads braille,” Schwartz explained. “And if we understand that well enough, could we pack more information into braille so people can still use their sense of touch to get the maximum [amount of] information possible?”

The idea is to add variety to the braille dots, such as friction manipulation, prickliness, fuzziness, temperature changes, and other mechanisms. This could help with explaining information graphics that are difficult to translate for a visually impaired audience.

Image of Braille by Peter Rukavina.