Articles

New eBook Turns Space into a Tonal Universe for the Visually Impaired

by Allison Meier on January 20, 2014

A wide field view of the Tarantula Nebula (courtesy NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (STScI) )

A wide field view of the Tarantula Nebula (courtesy NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (STScI))

The newest images of the Tarantula Nebula are stunning. Some 170,000 light years away, the staggering astral site is where hundreds of thousands of stars are being born. The images are also the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest look yet from at this distant “30 Doradus Nebula” as it is officially labeled. Now a new eBook is aiming to make that starscape engaging for everyone, including the visually impaired.

Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn is a collaboration between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and analytics company SAS. Astronomer Elena Sabbi was inspired to start the project by one of her college interns, Chelsea Cook, who is blind. Sabbi told Hyperallergic:

“Two years ago I worked with Chelsea Cook, a visually impaired summer intern. Chelsea is determined to become an astronomer, but, although the technology to make books and websites accessible to the blind in principle already exists, so far there have been very few attempts to effectively take advantage of this technology. I hope that this book will show how easy is to make a book or a website more accessible and will encourage writers, bloggers, and online journals to become more inclusive.”

The book, planned to be made available as a free iPad download, will cover introductory topics like the life cycle of stars, telescope types, the reasons for studying astronomy, and of course, the Tarantula Nebula. The nebula is particularly interesting in being so incredibly active so near our Earth (near in terms of the astronomical distances of space study, at least).

Detail of the Tarantual Nebula in infrared light (via NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (STScI) )

Detail of the Tarantula Nebula in infrared light (via NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (STScI))

One of the features of the book is “sonification,” where a luminous landscape of stars is transformed into a tonal experience. By touch, different leveled pitches convey the brightness of the stars. This combined with tactile overlays is aimed at making the universe, which even visually is hard to comprehend in its scope and complexity, something engaging for the visually impaired. Yet it was important to the team of astronomers, artists, and programmers that it not be a separate “disability” material, that it be something with accessible components that’s engaging for everyone.

“The book utilizes technology developed at SAS which enables users with visual impairments to perceive and interact with graphical representations of data,” Ed Summers, senior manager of accessibility and applied assisted technology at SAS, told Hyperallergic. “That technology allows the book to be enjoyed by students with visual impairments. However, we want the book to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience so we have included additional features such as read aloud, captioning, and compatibility with assistive technologies.”

The images included in this post were released this month, using infrared light to show the haunting depth and clouds of growing stars in the Tarantula Nebula. While the eBook is not yet available, you can use the insanely large Hubble images available online (16,617 x 14,939 pixels!) to delve right into the stars and make your own discoveries, an experience that will soon be available to a wider audience than ever before.

“Astronomical images are very engaging, they show distant worlds, alien landscapes and it is easy to spark people’s imagination,” Sabbi says. “You can use these images to start a conversation not only about astronomy and astrophysics, but also about chemistry, kinematics and dynamics, mathematics, the technologies needed to build and operate new telescopes, and those necessary to analyze complex data.”

Read more about Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn at HubbleSite

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