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Accessing Graphical Information with IVEO SVG

John Gardner

ViewPlus Technologies, Inc.

Updated August 10, 2011

ViewPlus QuickNotes are brief articles on math and science accessibility topics relevant to blind people. QuickNotes assume that readers are computer-literate enough to use Windows applications at a basic level and that blind readers are competent screen reader users.


Computers have brought a revolution in information, much of which has been a great boon to blind people. One trend that is not such a boon is the increasing use of graphics to convey information. Graphics are not just used in professional journals. Nearly all printed and electronic literature today include photographs, drawings, maps, charts, diagrams, and other graphic illustrations. Some of these are included solely for visual appeal, but many convey important information, often the only source of that information in the article. Even K-12 textbooks in the US have roughly half their content conveyed graphically.

Blind people have traditionally relied on word descriptions to convey information in graphics, but word descriptions are seldom a really adequate substitute for the graphic. This article describes the ViewPlus IVEO accessible Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) technology that can provide true access to graphical information. ViewPlus is presently marketing IVEO as the ViewPlus Hands-on Learning System primarily for young children. IVEO's more advanced users see it as a good way to "make complex graphical information accessible", and it is the purpose of this article to provide an overview of this functionality. However, the technology was developed as a universally usable mainstream method, and I hope that at some time in the future, all electronic graphical information will be in the form of accessible SVG. Then graphics will be accessible "out of the box", and no blind person will need help to read it.

Audio-Tactile Access with IVEO Viewer

The free IVEO Viewer can make graphics accessible to just about anybody who has difficulty seeing or understanding standard graphical information. IVEO Viewer will display any SVG image on screen. When a text label is selected with a mouse, IVEO Viewer will speak it. The SVG format permits any SVG graphical object to have information (a title and a description) included in the file. That information will be spoken when that object is selected with the mouse.

Many people with print disabilities can use a mouse effectively, and IVEO Viewer is sufficient for them to get much improved access to graphics. People who have no vision and many who do have vision cannot use a mouse effectively, and those people need a tactile copy to access the information presented by IVEO Viewer.

One can create a tactile copy by printing from IVEO Viewer to a ViewPlus embosser. By default, dark regions emboss with tall dots, and light regions emboss with small dots. This is normally sufficient tactile contrast to identify objects. [Note that a contrast slider in the Tiger tab of ViewPlus embossers permits users to optimize tactile contrast with a bit of trial and error experimentation.]

The tactile copy is placed on the IVEO touchpad so that the upper left corner fits snugly, and it is then clamped to hold it in position. The user's finger moving on the tactile image is the equivalent of the mouse, and a finger press is the equivalent of the mouse click. the computer doesn't care - its actions are the same. The IVEO Viewer permits users easily to change the image size. One can choose among several common paper sizes or set a custom size. The IVEO touchpad permits pages up to 11x14 inches, and I generally just emboss everything in this size. Bigger is almost always better for tactile reading. For a number of good reasons, text is not converted to braille. It is embossed just like everything else. If the image is considerably enlarged, a user who knows the alphabet can sometimes read text tactually. More often, text is too small to emboss well with the 20 dpi resolution of ViewPlus embossers, but nonetheless it is fairly easy to recognize text tactually. If you press on text, it will be spoken.

If the SVG image has a title and description, it will be heard when first displayed in IVEO Viewer. It can be played at any time by pressing "d". The title of any graphical object is spoken when that object is pressed. If the object also has a description, it is played by pressing the CTRL-d hot key. In the soon-to-be-released IVEO 3.0 Viewer, the description is played by double-tapping the object.

Users have many options for improving their viewing experience. One of the most useful is ability to select an object or a region and then zoom it to full screen. For example, even on a 11x14 image of the US map, the northeastern states are pretty small. So you can select a rectangle that contains these states, zoom to full screen, reprint the image, and even feel Rhode Island distinctly.

Many images (most maps, charts, graphs, diagrams) have good tactile contrast, and it is usually relatively easy to understand such a graphic if there is enough information about the major objects. Even many images (photographs, paintings) that can feel like a collection of poorly-discriminated bumps and valleys, can often be understood easily if enough information is included. This technique is called "audio-tactile" access. It was introduced more than two decades ago by Prof. Donald Parkes, an Australian academic and popularized initially with his Nomad touchpad marketed in the US by the American Printing House for the Blind. It seems to be pretty intuitive for most people, with only a modest learning curve. I recommend starting with some simple high-tactile-contrast graphics until you get the hang of it. Then you can read almost anything if you have patience.

This brief article is not intended to be a detailed tutorial on IVEO. There are extensive IVEO tutorials on the ViewPlus web site.

Using IVEO Creator Pro

There are two IVEO authoring applications, and nearly all capabilities of both can be used by blind people. IVEO Creator permits one to create simple drawings and add the titles and descriptions to objects. IVEO Creator Pro has these capabilities and also includes ability to import or convert virtually any electronic file to IVEO SVG format. You can also scan in paper documents and convert them. Creator Pro has OCR capability so that bit map images are automatically recognized, and SVG text is substituted for all original (inaccessible) bit map text.

IVEO Creator Pro has a direct import function for PostScript, PDF, and bit-map images. For other formats it includes a pseudo-printer application, IVEO Converter, that permits you to print to it from any application and end up with SVG. Separate SVG images are made for each page of multiple-page documents.

I make frequent use of Creator Pro to make IVEO versions of scientific figures, mostly from PDFs of papers of interest. Typically I will import a PDF document into IVEO Creator Pro. Then when I come across a figure I want to "see", I will print that page of the SVG to my ViewPlus Pro embosser. It is easy to tell tactually which are figures and which are text. I select the figure of interest, zoom it to full screen, and then print it to the Pro. If I have a willing sighted helper around, a sighted person can make the figure faster, because she doesn't need the first embossing step. But nonetheless it is something I can do without sighted assistance when necessary.

Once I have that figure, I can now read any text labels on the image. Of course I also have the text of the figure caption. If I intend to keep this figure for later reference, I normally copy the figure caption into the figure description field. If the image is a x-y graph, bar or column chart, or a flow diagram, I can generally understand it without any further sighted help. More complex images with lots of objects that are not well-labeled may not be so easy to understand. If so, I would send the SVG file to a sighted helper and ask that the graphics be labeled. In principle, a person who knows how to use IVEo Creator or Creator Pro can do this in a few minutes. Not bad access actually!

Generally I recommend using Creator Pro converters even if you want to import from applications like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw that can export SVG. The reason is that direct SVG exports seldom organize text into appropriate text spans. For example, some graph-making applications put all the numbers on the x axis into a single SVG text span. When one clicks on SVG text, the span is selected and spoken. For this example, each number on the x axis is spoken no matter which one is clicked. That's really annoying. Other applications frequently export text so that words are broken into several text spans. The IVEO converters include text filters that assemble SVG text into meaningful spans, so that one hears what one should hear.

Where Sighted Help is Required

In principle, any editing can be done by a blind person, but in practice, there are needs that require both sight and subject knowledge. When the graphical objects in a figure need to be identified with title and description, I strongly recommend that such information be inserted by a person who is familiar with the subject matter. I recommend that physics figures be enhanced by physicists or at least by students who are studying physics. Chemists add information to chemistry figures, etc. We made a Mona Lisa example for an art show a couple of years ago, and I asked an artist friend to help identify objects such as the eyes, mouth, hair, clothing. Anybody can identify what is a mouth, but only an artist can fill in descriptive details about what is special about Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.

How does One Add this Information to Graphical Objects?

A well-made graphic will have meaningful objects, and authoring applications actually do a surprisingly good job of creating meaningful objects if used by an intelligent author. The y axis is usually an object, as the x axis. A data set is typically a single object. A curve drawn to fit that data is usually a single object. For such nice graphics, an editor can select the object and open its properties either by mouse-clicking on the appropriate icon or by pressing ALT-Enter. A dialog box pops up, and the editor can fill in a title and, if she wants, a description. Save and close, and then do this for all important objects in the image.

There will of course be objects that are not so well-designed. One can group several things into a group in IVEO Creator and have an object consisting of several parts. That works. It is trickier to split up objects that are too big, but it can be done. I don't know how to do either of these things, so please read the IVEO tutorials if you need to do such editing.

For many cases it will be difficult or impossible to create the desired object so that it can be given a title and description. The most common problem of this kind are the bit map images that need to be made accessible. Although bit maps are not scalable, bit maps can nonetheless be used in a SVG file. The bit map is the only "object", but generally the editor will identify many sub-parts that need to be identified. In a photograph, one might want to identify which figure is Grandma and which is Uncle Carl. This is accomplished by creating invisible objects that overlay the two figures. These are vector objects and can be given title and description. The purpose is accomplished. Overlay objects can be created in numerous ways. For example, an oval or rectangular object can be selected that fits over the image more or less well. Or one can create a custom object by tracing around the object either on the screen with a mouse or on the touchpad with a finger. Overlay objects are usually semi-transparent when created so that a sighted editor can see what she has made. The final step is to convert it to a fully invisible object.

Where Does One Find an Embosser and Touchpad?

If you are not among the fortunate few who can afford personal ViewPlus embosser and IVEo combination or have one in the workplace, the most likely possibility today to find this equipment is in an academic lab. Most major colleges and universities have ViewPlus embossers, and many are beginning to use IVEO. I strongly encourage academic institutions to put an IVEO touchpad(s) in a lab equipped with a ViewPlus embosser that students can print to. If the institution does not have such a lab, they will normally find another way to provide for your needs. For example, by providing a touchpad and making tactile copy on request.

In addition to academic institutions, many libraries and agencies that serve needs of blind people have ViewPlus embossers, and some are beginning to use IVEO. It is worth an inquiry. I hope that access to touchpads and tactile copies can be improved dramatically in the next few years.

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