A 3D modeled page with a series of stars crossing the page.

Tactile Constellations

By Claudia Daudén

Since I was a little kid I’ve always loved to lay down and stare at the sky: finding animals shapes in the clouds by day and wondering what caused all of the little lights in the night sky. One of my favorite things to do while looking into the dark sky was to spot individual stars and connect them to the constellations they belonged to–what a bliss!

I came to work in the Sikuli Lab from Barcelona (Spain) because of my interest in Human Computer Interaction. I always wanted to work on something that gave me the chance to make this a better world. When I heard about Tom Yeh’s work and the Tactile Picture Book Project I wanted to make a contribution. Allowing kids with visual impairments to discover the world around them through the sense of touch sounded amazing.

When dreaming up a project to work on with the Sikuli Lab, I thought back to my childhood and about the blissful feelings I had while gazing up into the sky. I wanted see if I could make some tangible artifact that could convey the feeling to others, especially people with visual impairments. The sky, space, and the universe is immense. One of my first design challenges was to find a way to break the concept of the sky into something more tangible. I choose to make a constellation. I thought this would be a fun way to get to know stars and their characteristics.

In the Sikuli lab we are currently developing CraftML, a web HTML-based 3D composition tool. I decided to use this tool to design a prototype of a sphere model to represent the relational size, temperature and luminosity of a single star. Although I started working on CraftMl.io, I quickly moved to working with clay because it was hard to conceive of the actual feeling of the textures and size of the objects. I wondered, “how can I make it pleasant to touch?”. You see, real stars are made of fire and gasses–I had to find a way to adequately represent the temperature and luminocity. I started using clay to create textures made of little squares, domes and lines on the surface of a sphere. Domes were by far the most pleasant shapes to touch (like Braille). I then started wondering what it would feel like if I carved the textures into the surface of the clay. After several rounds of modeling, I found that little domes on the surface of the spheres felt the best, and conveyed the notion of luminosity the best. The larger the dome, the more light the star emits.

 Picture of spheres made with clay and plastic with textures on the surface.
Clay prototypes created while I explored ideas through the sense of touch.

With a few stars prototyped, I returned to thinking about how to represent constellations as a whole. Since Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was the first constellation I remember recognising from my childhood, I decided it should be the first one represented in CraftML too. Researching on the internet, I found the astronomical coordinates–which specify the direction of a point on the celestial sphere in the equatorial coordinate system– of the stars that make up Ursa Major. I added this characteristic to each star and created an algorithm to define their positions. Basically, this algorithm takes the correct ascension and declination positions of the star and converts them to the coordinate system used in CraftML (XYZ). This way, I could position them accordingly to their real position in the sky and create an accurate shape of the constellation.

Code made with CraftML and Javascript to define the properties of the star and calculate the coordinates from its astronomical coordinates.
Definition of the properties of the star and calculation of the XYZ coordinates
from Astronomical Coordinates with CraftML.

But something was still missing. I felt great about automatizing the process of representing constellations with CraftML but, from a user’s perspective, the task of creating a constellation lacked challenge. I started to think about how to make it more fun. I decided to convert the constellations into a set of puzzle pieces.

Working with the aim of creating 3D materials for people with visual impairments reaffirmed my belief that design is never trivial. Creating textures that allow people to feel, learn and discover things is very difficult while working with plastic. In the future I hope to experiment with how to represent more complex astronomical data in interesting tactile ways.

The puzzle consists of stars (as nodes) and connectors (lines) that a person can put together to construct the form of the constellation. I iterated the design of each stars; each star one or two holes for the connectors to fit in.   Each connector was a different shape so that the user would have to experiment to find the right shape and match the two adjacent stars together.

Pictures of a 3D printed sphere with its connector
First test of the puzzle pieces to see how to connect the stars.

Working with the aim of creating 3D materials for people with visual impairments reaffirmed my belief that design is never trivial. Creating textures that allow people to feel, learn and discover things is very difficult while working with plastic. In the future I hope to experiment with how to represent more complex astronomical data in interesting tactile ways.

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