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Making the intangible tangible: how a (touchable) picture says more than a thousand words

A story on how your perceptions changes for the better by feeling images
A Hable One being stored in a womans trouser pocket.

#blog by Kristina Misiunaite

I will truly never forget that one children's party at the zoo. I held a big branch in the air, as high as my arm could reach. Then a giraffe ate the leaves from it, and I could just feel its rough tongue. The same amazement happened to me later that day at the rhinoceros, which I was allowed to give a loaf of bread. In no time at all this, for us humans, rather large lunch, was devoured in one bite. Apart from the question whether a zoo is the best place to live for them, this was a way for me to get an idea of such large animals. This also applies to other things that are too big, too far away or too dangerous to touch. Tactile pictures or maquettes can help tremendously with that.

Quite the climb

I was determined not to lose count while climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The number of steps seemed to me to be a good indication of the height of this famous building. Hundreds of steps later, in duplicate - we also had to return - it was a bit disappointing to feel on the small-scale model that it was still a long way to the top, from the plateau where we had climbed. This model also enabled me to discover the shape of the entire tower. Learning to interpret a tactile drawing, for example, can take some practice, especially at the beginning. It often looks very different from what you would feel if you held it in your hands. The latter as far as possible, of course. Anyway, I always find it a pleasant surprise to suddenly encounter a lot of Braille dots together, in the middle of a city or large building for example. Certainly in terms of format, this cannot compete with a travel guide or a map that is quickly dug up, to see where we are and to determine the sights we still have to visit. Still, it gives a better overview of where you are. Always nice, I think, to also be able to feel the shape of those imposing towers of the cathedral for yourself. After you have heard the rich history of the building and were just in time for the beautiful playing of the church bells. Surely that gives an extra dimension and it sticks better. This will not come as a surprise to people who are visually inclined, although it is probably not quite the same thing.

Understanding smileys

How nice that Apple has not only embedded VoiceOver on every device, but also describes smileys. Everything that appears on the screen you can get spoken or displayed in Braille if you have a reading line attached. 'Smiling face with smiling eyes and hands held out for a hug', 'party popper', 'cheering hands held up'. If I'm not mistaken, this has also been possible via Talkback from Android for some time. With that description, you can understand what kind of face at what time is probably suitable to send to someone, or what you yourself receive in a message. Curiosity still remains as to exactly what these things look like. They are drawn very differently, compared to touching a statue in 3D with a certain facial expression, for example. Reasoning from the familiar shapes, such as circles, lines and dots, it becomes clear how such a thing, flat on paper is rendered.

So how does a tactile drawing work?

We asked Dorine in 't Veld, product manager of tactile learning at Dedicon.

“You can make tactile drawings of 3D subjects! And you can read them! How does that work? When you explore an object with your hands, for example a cup, you feel that the top is a circle. That's the top view. Is the bottom narrower? Then you draw another smaller circle inside it. Now you need another front view. That's the side that faces you. So, suppose the cup with the earpiece is facing left in front of you. Then you draw the outline of the cup, as if you were cutting the cup in half vertically. It's helpful to draw this top and side view above each other at exactly the same scale. Then you can easily establish the relationship. You can also make another side view. What would the side view from the left look like? Answer: the same as the front view, but with a line for the earpiece, which is on the left. If you practice a little, you can picture this very quickly. Good for your spatial understanding!”

Did you find this difficult, but does it seem fun and useful? Then you can order the tactile drawing reading course at Passchendaele! Or at Dedicon Educative: By touch...: from 3D to 2D. Then you get a drawing tape with explanations and 3D figures.

Both links can be found at the bottom of the article.

The art (of omission)

Making a picture tangible is not something you do easily. The fact that different textures can be distinguished does not mean that the drawing is also clear and easy to feel. It is quite a challenge to use different types of lines, dots. Combined with the goal to convey as much as possible without making it unclear. For illustrators it is undoubtedly a brainteaser every time when deciding what to leave out. Exploring a picture by touch is sometimes quite a journey of discovery, because two hands are not enough to fathom the whole image at once. Piece by piece you form the whole in your head, as it were a puzzle that gets more and more right, until the whole is complete. Yet I think it is true for everyone that if you look at something longer than just with a fleeting glance in passing, you get much more out of it. Your attention is drawn to details that you might otherwise have missed. In addition, it is very valuable, especially in the beginning, to get explanations from someone who knows how to work best and what is useful to pay attention to. A bit like a guide in a museum is an indispensable enrichment, compared to independently visiting an exhibition. Speaking of museums: tangible replicas of paintings are also possible, sometimes even including audio and everyday objects. All this to give even more of the intended atmosphere on the canvas. A nice way to deal with the fact that 'do not touch' signs keep blocking access, even after putting on thin gloves. If the material is too fragile or delicate to touch, such warnings make perfect sense. I can assure everyone, however, that anyone who experiences such works of art (virtually) without the visual sense will exercise such caution that the works may have been completely 'dusted off' again for ages. Not only in a literal sense, but all the more so when a visitor has given the work the attention it deserves, for more than just a few seconds.

Drawn for live

I think tangible pictures can be a super useful and an enriching addition to what you can actually touch with your hands, or someone can describe what something looks like. After all, the latter is again dependent on interpretation. Was the verbal thought experiment in 3D (see box) a bit too much for you or just not enough yet? Have a conversation with others about what they see in certain things. Especially with abstract art or other things, that can be wildly interesting and often yield unexpected, new insights. Just as I took the stairs instead of the elevator at the Eiffel Tower, it is absolutely worth it to get started and discover even more of the world!

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Tuesday, 16 February 2021