Researchers help blind ‘see’ Facebook photos

TACTILE TECHNOLOGY: An ASU student runs his fingers across a Braille map of the ASU Tempe campus located in the Disability Resource Center. Baoxin Li, assistant professor in the School of Computing and Informatics, is in the process of developing a method that would enable the visually impaired to "see" the faces of people on computer screens by producing tactile images. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky)

Social networking has come to dominate 21st-century culture. But visually impaired people have yet to fully experience this digital community.

Baoxin Li, assistant professor in the School of Computing and Informatics, is working with several ASU students to develop a way for the visually impaired to “see” images of faces on computers.

“Imagine if a blind user can now get an idea what his [or] her Facebook friends ‘look like’ by touching tactile pictures made from their photos,” Li said in an e-mail.

When Li came to ASU six years ago, similar research was already happening in the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), he said. Researchers in CUbiC, which focuses on different applications for cutting-edge research, were developing assistive technologies for the visually impaired.

Li said the researchers narrowed down the list of ways they could make social networks more accessible to the blind.

“Among others, face images were chosen because of their significance in a person’s social and emotional life,” he said.

The concept is similar to text-to-Braille, but differs because unlike words, images don’t have a strict alphabet, Li said. It’s challenging to print a photograph and translate it into an image, but through tactile form, blind participants are able to explore the image with their fingertips and “see” what an image looks like.

“We developed computer-based image analysis techniques to identify major facial landmarks,” Li said.

The analysis first works to identify the image through major facial features, such as the eyes and nose, and then puts them into tactile form.

“A user can then explore the image by touch,” he said.

Zheshen Wang, a fifth-year doctoral student in computer science and engineering, is Li’s key student researcher on the project.

“Some of the blind participants were very excited in touching a graphical human face by hand,” Wang said in an e-mail. “It is a rewarding task.”

Li, Wang and their team are currently working on mastering the technology and printing tactile faces for their participants, Li said, but actual deployment is in the works.

“We will be seeking different embodiments of this technology,” Li said. “Such as its use as software component for tactile printer manufacturers … or a software package for a user at home.”

Wang sees the future of tactile printing as affordable for the blind. She looks forward to the day when visually impaired people can select their friends online, click print and finally know how they look.

Reach the reporter at ktenagli@asu.edu