Designing touch surfaces to help the visually impaired operate home appliances

Tangible Surface Research, LLC
Pittsford, New York
EngineeringArt and Design
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/5601
Raised of $500 Goal
Funded on 10/02/15
Successfully Funded
  • $903
  • 180%
  • Funded
    on 10/02/15

Project Results

Appliance overlays using tactile icons promote self-sufficiency in the home for people who are visually impaired.  The tactile icons identify the location and function of buttons on home appliances that have touch surface controls.  Based on a universal design, these tactile icons are a world-wide solution for tactile labeling and identification. 

About This Project

Many new ovens, dishwashers and other home appliances have flat, touch sensitive control panels instead of tactile buttons and knobs. Though these smooth interfaces are sleek and easy to clean, it is difficult for people with visual impairments to identify the appliance controls. Our goal is to develop and evaluate low-cost home appliance tactile cues for people with low vision.

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What is the context of this research?

Since the smooth appliance panels present the same lack-of-tactile-control problem as computer touchscreens, we will draw upon the body of knowledge already published on touchscreen accessibility for the visually impaired. For example, some researchers have tested paper overlays for a music player. And others have tested touch plates for the Microsoft SUR40 PixelSense interactive tabletop.

Our study is unique in that we are applying touchscreen accessibility ideas to home appliance interfaces.

See Lab Notes for our current set of requirements

What is the significance of this project?

By making appliances easier to use, this project helps people with visual impairments be more independent in the home.

Also this project begins the process of incorporating standard tactile features in touch interfaces. We will study the common controls used in our everyday lives and develop a set of tactile shapes that have meaning. Doesn't it make sense that the Start button on the microwave should FEEL the same as the Start button on the dishwasher? Though the primary focus is on people with visual impairments, the results may apply to everyone regardless of their visual ability.

What are the goals of the project?

The first goal is to develop and test low-cost, easy-to-manufacture tactile cues to serve the visually impaired. We will test three types of tactile cues for appliance control panels:

Touch plates. An overlay that has 'holes' to guide the finger to each control.

Button Overlay. An overlay that has raised areas over each control.

Shaped Bump Dots. Like the existing bump dots currently used by the visually impaired to identify controls except these bump dots will have unique and obvious shapes for common appliance controls. For example the Start button will have an obvious triangular shape.

The other goal is to develop a tactile icon library that identifies tactile shapes that have meaning for the home appliance domain.


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Update 9/21/2015: Each $250 increment above my original goal adds 10-15 more test participants!

Compensation for test subjects - We are working with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) in Rochester, NY. It is expected that any formal experiment will compensate the test subjects for their time.

Materials - We have self-funded the initial materials which were fairly inexpensive and easily sourced from craft stores. The second set of materials were thicker and had some cling-ability but could only be purchased in larger quantities (more $$). The next set will require a trip to a local plastics supplier for better quality materials.

Equipment - We use the equipment at the Rochester Makerspace. The cricut machine needs a new die cut blade and cut mats. We plan to purchase a specialized deep cut blade for the thicker materials. The equipment contribution will keep these machines in good working condition.

Meet the Team

Anne DeWitte
Anne DeWitte


Tangible Surface Research, LLC
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Team Bio

Back in the 90's I worked on the user interface software team at a large corporation that made printers. The user interface panel was a mix of hard tooled buttons and a touchscreen. We crammed a huge set of features into the touchscreen because the printer could copy, fax, scan, and of course, print. Some touchscreen buttons we designed were very small and people had problems selecting the right feature. I thought, "Wish we could make a touchscreen where you could also feel the buttons." That idea has been with me ever since.

I took a break from the corporate world around 2005-2008 and received my MS in Industrial Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. This is my thesis, Investigation of dynamic three-dimensional tangible touchscreens: Usability and feasibility.

After receiving my degree, I returned to the corporate world and yet another printer program team. Realizing I had worked on printer development most of my career and noticing the industry has yet to develop the programmable surface that I always envisioned, I decided to focus my skills on research and development of tangible touchscreens. My company is Tangible Surface Research, LLC.

Working with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) on the tactile cue activity is a great opportunity to support the visually impaired community and it helps me better understand the needs of tactile surface users.

Additional Information

Supporting Material

1. White paper reference #1:

David McGookin, Stephen Brewster, and WeiWei Jiang. 2008. Investigating touchscreen accessibility for people with visual impairments. In Proceedings of the 5th Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction: building bridges (NordiCHI '08). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 298-307. DOI=10.1145/1463160.1463193

2. White paper reference #2:

Shaun K. Kane, Meredith Ringel Morris, and Jacob O. Wobbrock. 2013. Touchplates: low-cost tactile overlays for visually impaired touch screen users. In Proceedings of the 15th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS '13). ACM, New York, NY, USA, , Article 22 , 8 pages. DOI=10.1145/2513383.2513442

3. Touchplate and overlay for my microwave.

Project Backers

  • 19Backers
  • 180%Funded
  • $903Total Donations
  • $47.53Average Donation
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