Haptic app helps visually impaired learn math

A Vanderbilt grad student wants the visually impaired to be able to use one of their strongest senses--touch--to better visualize algebra, geometry, and more.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
High school student Kira traces a grid on an Android tablet screen that vibrates in a specific pattern when her finger touches a line. Pat Slattery/Vanderbilt University

For the blind and visually impaired, it can be nearly impossible to follow along when a math teacher spends most of a lecture in front of a blackboard or projector drawing shapes, parabolas, X-Y planes, and other visuals.

It's about time there's an app for that, thought mechanical engineering grad student Jenna Gorlewicz, who'd spent a few years at Vanderbilt's Medical and Electromechanical Design Laboratory miniaturizing endoscopic robotic capsules and was looking for a more people-oriented project.

So Gorlewicz, who says she loves both teaching and math, set out 18 months ago to try to develop a tablet app that uses haptic (or tactile) technology to help the visually impaired learn math and other subjects with a strong visual component.

Using a Samsung Galaxy Tab, which can generate hundreds of different sounds and vibrations with various frequencies, Gorlewicz was able to assign different tactile queues for different features. On an X-Y grid, for example, she was able to set the horizontal and vertical lines to vibrate differently, and then set points on the grid to generate certain tones.

Gorlewicz began working with two visually impaired high school students, Quinn and Kira, at Hillsboro High School in Nashville for design and user interface assistance. While they admit that it took some time to learn to use the app, both students report that once they did, they reaped a lot of benefits from it.

"When Jenna first approached me with the idea, I thought it would be interesting and might be some small help," Ann Smith, a high school teacher who works with Kira and Quinn, said in a school release. "The more experience I have with it, the more valuable I think it could be. It makes the work more accessible. The students are really interested and they talk about it even when Jenna isn't here."

In fact, Quinn and Kira have come up with several other applications for this kind of learning tool, Gorlewicz said by e-mail. The app, which she says could be market-ready in the next year on Android devices, could be useful far beyond the realm of mathematics.

"There's a lot of potential for other apps that follow the same principles as the math one," Gorlewicz said. "In chemistry, it could be used to convey the periodic table of elements and other visual concepts such as configurations of atoms, etc. Other subjects include geometry, trigonometry, physics, and engineering courses, many of which have visual components."

Gorlewicz sees haptic tech being an important educational tool for a wide variety of students, given that it appeals to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. In addition to those who are completely blind and partially visually impaired, it may also benefit those who are deaf and can take advantage of the haptic and visual feedback, as well as children with autistic and attention deficit disorders who interact more easily with tablets and tactile feedback.