What’s the Point of ShapeReader’s Tactile Comic Books for Blind Readers?

shapereaderToday I'd like to revisit a story I linked to last week in a morning coffee post and ask a few questions about it.

As Forbes reported a little over a month ago (and NY Magazine and HypoAllergenic reiterated) ShapeReader is an experiment in adding a tactile dimension to comic books.

Comic books are a very visual art form, and so they translate to non-visual mediums about as well as portraiture. ShapeReader is a one-off experiment which tries to address that limitation by introducing a set of boards which are covered with textures that are used to define parts of the story.

From HypoAllergenic:

The result is Shapereader, a system of tactile ideograms, or “tactigrams:” haptic equivalents for objects, actions, feelings, characters, and other features of any story. They’re raised shapes on wooden board, and have more in common with Chinese pictograms than with braille letters or the Roman alphabet, in that they’re textural depictions of what they represent.

Arctic Circle, a 57-page graphic novel, is the first narrative work designed with the Shapereader system. Here, anxiety is represented by a series of ridged zig-zags; arctic moss by clusters of leaf shapes; falling snow is translated into circular blobs. A walrus is a bunch of jagged concentric diamonds, and Sir Alfred Cook, one of the main characters, is a series of horizontal stripes. In designing tactigrams, Manouach aimed for simplicity and distinctiveness — the shapes had to be easy to memorize by touch.

Here's one of the 57 pages from Arctic Circle. Note: None of the textures are defined on the page; you have to check what I would call the glossary.


NY Magazine calls this a "new language", which it is. But given that no one understands what is written here without the glossary, and given that said glossary is so cumbersome that it will be too expensive to copy and distribute, this is not a language which will be widely adopted.

ShapeReader shares a problem common to languages like Japanese and Chinese which use ideograms. These languages have thousands of unique symbols which a reader has to learn before they become fluent. This makes this type of language very hard for an outsider to learn, and when combined with ShapeReader's replication and distribution issue it turns the project from a breakthrough into a dead-end.

And that's no big loss.

No, seriously, what with the latest advancements in image recognition, we are rapidly approaching the point where we will have apps which can take a digital comic and read the dialog while describing the action.

Several years back a startup released a Google Glass app which could use the Glass's camera to identify what the user was looking at. And of course there's Google Goggle, an app which can identify the text or other content in front of a smartphone's camera.


Are we at the point where this tech would work with a digital comic? Probably not, but that day is coming.

I give it five years, on the outside, before this kind of app is widely available. And that's a pessimistic view; we could see that app in as little as three years. (Heck, it's entirely possible that some PhD student has already demonstrated the basic idea and we just don't know about it yet.)

What did you think of it?

About Nate Hoffelder (10608 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

1 Comment on What’s the Point of ShapeReader’s Tactile Comic Books for Blind Readers?

  1. While you’re being right from the technical point of view (image recognition and telling is more practical), I do think that there is still a beauty to a tactic/haptic sense you could not match otherwise.

    I compare this project to an image describing app as opening, sniffing, touching, pageturning a new artbook to reading a PDF on an iPad 😉

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