By adding features to commonly used chemical-engineering software packages, researchers at the University of Arkansas, the University of Akron and Chemstations Inc. have developed adaptive technology that allows blind or visually impaired students and working professionals to perform the essential functions of chemical-engineering process design.
Led by Bob Beitle, professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas, the research team created a system that combines tactile, Braille-like representations that can be “read” by visually impaired chemical engineers. The system also includes an audio, screen-reading component and audible indicators of certain software functions. Researchers have also overcome a major obstacle associated with the user function of dragging and dropping or copying and pasting. A tablet computer with a customized overlay, a tablet pen functioning as a computer mouse, and alignment holes mapped to the tactile objects help facilitate the drag-and-drop function, which is the method that connects unit operations.
“We are far enough into this project for me say that we have significantly minimized the differences between visually impaired and sighted engineers who do process design,” Beitle said. “While we haven't eliminated all differences, we have reached a point where a blind chemical engineer can conduct himself as any engineer by manipulating process-engineering software to achieve improvements or investigate alternatives.”
The system has been extensively tested at a process-engineering firm by Noel Romey, a graduate student in the Ralph E. Martin Department of Chemical Engineering. Romey, who has been blind since birth, came to the university to study chemical engineering. Since May, he has tested the system by simulating and designing various chemical facilities. The extensive designs are used by clients of the design firm to improve manufacturing systems.
The teaching and practice of chemical-engineering design traditionally has had a strong visual component due to many visual tools that describe concepts and processes. This reality, combined with the fact that industry-specific software does not include any adaptive-technology features, means that professors and engineering professionals have little experience with visually impaired students, which may contribute to blind and visually impaired students avoiding the profession.
Beitle's team converted GUIs into TUIs. GUI stands for graphical user interface, which describes software that relies heavily on icons and visual tools to represent concepts, functions and processes. Of course, behind any GUI are codes programmed to execute various user commands, such as opening programs or dragging documents. To accommodate those who can't rely on visual cues, the researchers had to alter this visually dependent system into something that could be felt – a tactile user interface. Their system includes a TabletPC or CintiQ – personal computers/screens that simulate notepads – and a pen-based mouse. Most importantly, the system uses custom-made tactiles – small objects embossed with patterns that represent various GUI icons that symbolize parts, such as valves, pumps and reactors – and an overlay that is placed on the screen. The tactiles adhere to the overlay. Alignment holes on the tactiles allow users to place them at desired locations on the overlay and thus build process-flow diagrams. Tactile and graphical interfaces are the same size because when a tactile is clicked, the design is built on the computer screen under it.
In addition to the computer modifications, the research project has an equally important psychological component, one that Beitle thinks will help both sighted and visually impaired engineers. Whether in the classroom or at an engineering firm, engineers must work as a team on design projects. This reality made Beitle think about the importance of language and the verbal exchange of information between blind and sighted professionals. How can design team members convey technical information when a visual diagram cannot be relied upon?
To answer this question, Beitle and his design students collaborated with Douglas Behrend, professor and chair of the psychology department in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, and Rachel Schwartz, a psychology graduate student. Led by Schwartz and Behrend, who is an expert in cognitive and language development, the researchers studied individuals with different communication styles and measured the reliance on vague language, visual cues and gestures. When working with Romey, sighted students seemed to modify patterns of communication styles in ways that suggested they were considering the dynamics of working with a visually impaired colleague. Behrend said this may be explained by group members using metacognition, which psychologists broadly refer to as individuals' knowledge of and about their own and others' cognitive processes.
“This added dimension of this project will prepare sighted members of a design team to communicate effectively in a technical fashion with less reliance on visual cues,” Beitle said.