New e-book for visually impaired brings deep-space images to life through touch, sound

SAS, Space Telescope Science Institute inspire passion for science in students

The kaleidoscopic Tarantula Nebula, as photographed from the Hubble Space Telescope, is the “star” of an e-book on stellar evolution aimed at students, ages 10-12, with visual impairments. New assistive technologies enable children with visual impairments to experience the striking images like never before.

Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn is being developed specifically for the iPad®. It will be available in Apple’s iBooks® Store for free download during the summer of 2014. The book will be previewed at the Texas Computer Education Association 2014 Convention and Exposition, Feb. 3 in Austin, TX.

SAS is creating the e-book in partnership with Elena Sabbi, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Sabbi is the lead researcher on the latest Hubble image of 30 Doradus, nicknamed the Tarantula Nebula. The development of the e-book is funded by a Hubble education and public outreach grant.

Ada Lopez is the lead author of the e-book. As a Science Curriculum Specialist for SAS® Curriculum Pathways® and a former middle school science teacher, Lopez is well-qualified to present the complex subject of stellar evolution to the target audience. “Today’s mainstream classroom is filled with diverse learners. This resource is accessible to the entire class,” said Lopez.

Although the e-book is designed for blind and visually impaired children, anyone can view and enjoy Reach for the Stars. “The goal is to inspire people and attract them to science,” Sabbi explained. “We want children to know that science is cool and that anybody can be a scientist who wants to.”

Ed Summers, a blind software engineer and Senior Manager of Accessibility and Applied Assisted Technology at SAS, spearheads the development of the e-book, leading a team of programmers, graphic artists and accessibility specialists. Summers’ team uses touch-screen technology, such as the iPad, to make data more accessible to people with visual and other disabilities.

Summers agreed that Reach for the Stars is not solely for blind children.

“People with disabilities want access to the same materials as everybody else, but tailored for them,” said Summers. “We are creating an accessible mainstream book to benefit everybody, rather than something limited to a relatively small audience of students with visual impairments.”

The e-book will consist of six chapters. Children with learning disabilities will be able to touch the audio icon on each screen to hear the text read to them. Students with visual impairments can access the book using the VoiceOver screen reader that is available on every iPad. 

Images, graphics and animations will appear in every chapter. Some will be interactive. Prominent star clusters in an image of the Tarantula Nebula, for example, are marked by circles. Touch a circle and the name of the feature is read aloud and a caption appears on the screen.

All of the content in the e-book supports read aloud, captioning, a compatibility option for people with hearing aids, compatibility with refreshable Braille displays, and a high-contrast feature for those with low vision.

The e-book also utilizes an emerging technology called “sonification,” which uses sound to convey information. The project team already has incorporated the new feature in a diagram plotting the brightness of stars against their surface temperature. It uses pitch to tell people with visual impairments the intensity of a particular star when they touch it. The brighter the star, the higher the pitch. The temperature of a star is conveyed through either the left or right ear. Cooler stars are on the left of the graph, hotter stars on the right.

For some images, SAS will provide tactile overlays with raised textures representing important features in the image. The National Braille Press is making 200 sets of overlays that will be available free upon request while supplies last.

SAS plans to release the e-book this summer. The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, a project partner, will distribute it through its network of teachers and parents.

About SAS

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Deep-Space Ebook 1
Hubble image of the Tarantula Nebula. Interesting features such as star clusters, stellar nurseries, etc, are highlighted and provide auditory information when touched.(click image for hi-res)
Deep-Space Ebook 2
click image for hi-res

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