2014 Finalist: Outstanding Science and Technology Startup sponsored by NAIT

Touch Integration and Tactile Display Helps Users Feel Images they Cannot See

In this day and age the smartphone is ubiquitous, allowing users access to massive amounts of information in the palm of their hands. While this has been a transformational development in communication technology, there is a growing population that cannot use this technology.

Doug Hagedorn, Tactalis Founder and CEO says, “There is all this information, technology and software that is available but it’s tied to an LCD screen so you have be able to see to use it.”

Globally, there are an estimated 285 million people who are visually impaired and cannot access essential information from graphics such as diagrams, maps, apps and charts that are presented on the devices most take for granted. The number of people affected is only going to grow in the coming years as the baby boomer generation age and their vision begins to deteriorate.

“All these people that have had a lifetime with computers, laptops and cellphones are going to hit this point where they lose their sight and they’ll still want to use all of those services,” Hagedorn explains.

The Feel of Information

Tactalis is seeking to resolve this issue through innovative tactile display technology. The development and commercialization of touchscreen computers with tactile output will help bring mobility, inclusion and job opportunities to people without sight.

“We’re doing to braille and hardcopy tactile graphics what Apple and Amazon have done to music and books,” says Hagedorn. “We’re taking a hardcopy, static format and digitizing it and democratizing access so that everyone can use it. And we’re distributing it via the web.”

From its base in Calgary, Tactalis has invented a tablet computer system called Origin Tactile Interface (OTI) that combines touch interaction with groundbreaking tactile display technology.

OTI functions through an array of magnets embedded beneath a standard LCD screen. The display instantly creates a tangible reproduction of images normally displayed as pixels of light.

By using a metal stylus or wearing a metallic ring, the user feels the attraction or repulsion of the magnet in response to a point of interest.

The technology also allows the revolutionary use of layers in tactile feel. Overlapping shapes are frequently used in digital mediums but are useless in standard non-visual products perceived with the tip of the finger. OTI’s use of magnetic feel in conjunction with other textures enables information layering.

Target Market

Early adopters of OTI won’t necessarily be the visually impaired but those with visually impaired clients. Teachers working with visually impaired students are limited to the use of expensive, inefficient and cumbersome braille textbooks and tactile graphics.

“They don’t have anything akin to a whiteboard. For blind students that whiteboard means nothing,” says Hagedorn. “If we can give teachers a tablet so they can create whatever sketch they would draw on the board and then push it to the students using that device, that is a really powerful opportunity.”

The integration of this technology could greatly increase learning opportunities for blind students and reduce costs for these educational organizations, he adds.

Information kiosks and directories are the second target of OTI technology. Currently, interactive touchscreens are inaccessible to the visually impaired. Implementing OTI technology into the numerous terminals found in airports, hotels, shopping malls and hospitals would allow the visually impaired the same access to information as everyone else.

Glowing Reception

“The first grant we ever received was from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which is a fantastic testimonial to their needs and their interest into what we are doing,” Hagedorn says.

In March 2014, Tactalis held their unofficial launch at the International Technology and Persons with Disability Conference in San Diego. They introduced their technology to 4,600 people. Hagedorn says the response was incredibly positive and so far has been the high point of their journey.

“The industry hasn’t seen a new product in 30 years. There’s this sort of yearning for something entirely different.”