From the Braille Printer to Graphtact

The GRAPHTACT system is a technological innovation dedicated to the tactual production of graphic material. This system was developed within the frame-work of a large braille standardization project now underway at the Université du Québec à Montréal. GRAPHTACT draws precisely and neatly, and offers a superior tactual quality.


From the Braille Printer to Graphtact


The GRAPHTACT system is a technological innovation dedicated to the tactual production of graphic material. This system was developed within the frame-work of a large braille standardization project now underway at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Created both from accumulated observations and the needs of schools, the GRAPHTACT system makes possible, among other things, the set of three different reliefs, textured lines and surfaces, thick paper (braille paper), braille annotations, etc. Furthermore, GRAPHTACT draws precisely and neatly, and offers a superior tactual quality. While the technical team associated with the project pursues the development and amelioration of the system, it has become urgent to include an additional aspect to there search : it is the elaboration of a structured approach with regard to the analysis of non-language representations. Such an approach seems more and more necessary, even indispensable, to the tactual adaptation of that repre-sentation. The GRAPHTACT system is a promising tool for the production of well-designed tactual illustrations. 


Before presenting the GRAPHTACT system, a technological innovation for the production of tactual graphic material, a brief review is necessary. This review will be followed by reflections that extend beyond the tool itself, that is its potential service to the users for whom it was first developed.


In a computerized production environment, what peripheral device could produce tactual representations on paper? That fundamental and yet simple question was posed when the tactual illustration aspect was added to the large braille standardization project[l a and b].


In Québec, the braille standardization project was undertaken by the Ministry of Higher Education and science and assigned to the Université du Québec at Montréal. Its aim is essentially to create the necessary tools to guide and structure the standardization of production regarding transcribed material destined for use in the school system. Tactual graphics became necessary within the initial standardization project because, among other things, visual representations have progressively and massively invaded textbooks. There fore, a very different problem was added to the braille question: the tactile reading of illustrations.

For the transfer to a tactual mode of alphabetical and numerical texts, the very structured braille system already exists. But up to now, no system exists for the transfer of illustrations. One (myself included) would be led to believe that we are perhaps at a pre-Louis Braille stage when faced with the access by the blind to visual representations.

Did not Paul Murphy discuss this aspect in 1989 when he wrote that: The first attempts at creating a tactual language, for example, involved the embossing of characters as they appeared in print?[2] Did he not anticipate that: ”In fifty years, we may find that tactual graphics do not resemble their visual counterparts any more than braille cells resemble printed letters?[2]

A visual graphic representation may be communicated tactually either sym-bolically or graphically. There lies the need for an editorial choice.

To determine braille standards, the original tool need not be re-considered. The braille six point cell has been standardized for a long time and the various equipments respect those standards. But in determining standards for the production of tactual representations, we can refer neither to any system nor to any standard techniques, not even to tactual standards. The area of tactual representation is still young. The task is enormous and a considerable amount of research in many fields will be necessary.


The project finally became involved in the development of a new tool for the production of tactual material because the equipment then available did not meet the proposed objectives.

The potential of the graphic”braille printer was first examined and proved inadequate because of the single relief, the absence of a truly solid line, the distortion of straight lines other than vertical or horizontal ones, and conse-quently of forms other than the square, the rectangle, etc. Then the discovery of the solid ink jet printer, Pixelmaster[3], gave rise to much hope and enthusiasm. Its design potential showed that the tactual representation could be very accurately done and that the guidelines concerning the height and width of the lines, and the texture of surfaces, presented, individually and concurrently, an interesting choice of options. That printer was used to produce the tactual material used in three experiments with young people in the school system.[4a and b] Those experiments confirmed, among other things, that line heights lower than the braille point n be perceived, and consequently, can be used in tactual displays. It was the gradual lack of interest in the product by the Howtek company (the discontinued service and development) that brought the project back to the starting point, that is, the initial problem.


The following observations became, however, positive factors towards, more research:

    • basic norms would only be useful if the production tool had the potential to meet expectations ;
    • the equipment used up to now were disappointing, but they furnished much information;
    • there is a technological void, but there are some interesting paths to explore.

Following this assessment, the project decided to joine with a technical team to undertake the creation and development of a tool which would integrate the strong points of the Pixelmaster printer while remedying some its weaker ones.


The expected results of the design potential of a newly developed tool can be summarized essentially as follows:

The peripheral device must be able:

    • to trace various types of lines : solid, broken, dotted dashed, mixed;
    • to produce different line textures;
    • to produce a gradation of a least three relief heights (minimum objective: 0,045 mm; maximum objective: as close as possible to the height of the braille point);
    • to obtain different line widths regardless of the relief: insistence on the access to a fine line;
    • to have access to a large choice of textured surface areas;
    • to insure the consistency of the drawing, as well from the point of view of the relief as from that of the texture;
    • to overlap tactual graphic elements;
    • to offer good discernment potential with regard to various tactual information within the same graphic design;
    • to insert braille notations while respecting the standard dimensions of the cell;
    • to print on 28 cm x 28 cm braille paper;
    • to use an efficient software design program;
    • to develop a library of symbols, figures and even graphic compositions;
    • to produce in a relatively short time;
    • finally, to attain a line precision of superior tactual quality.


Thanks to the close collaboration between the person in charge of the project and the technical team, the majority of the objectives have been reached and they correspond to the potential of the developed system (figure 1).  With GRAPHTACT, the tactile displays are produced on braille paper no larger than 28 cm x 28 cm. The graphic composition is made by means of design software GRAPHTACT draws tactual material of very high precision : the line is clear and constant. The system produces three distinct reliefs, and to each of these reliefs is associated a line width. Solid, dotted, dashed and mixed lines are competently produced. The texture of lines and surfaces can be produced, as well as braille writing. Thanks to the computerization of the system, the guidelines, graphic elements and figures can be pre-determined.

Figure 1: The GRAPHTACT system is a technological innovation dedicated to the tactual production of graphic material

Photo de l'appareil GRAPHTACT


During the entire GRAPHTACT development process and the on-going control concerning its tactual design quality, I have never lost sight of the ultimate goal of the project to propose standards for more consistency in the production of tactual material. Thus methods gradually emerged and these will be presented as temporary basic standards at the interministerial committee on braille standardization, then subsequently validated in the school system.

The following directives may be included with regard to:

    1. enlargements: not to be overused when the graphics are simple;
    2. a minimal size of the basic geometric figures;
    3. the creation of an angle identifier, an element judged tactually necessary for identifying very wide angles;
    4. the creation of a right angle identifier in order to be able to perceive that angle, difficult when the figure is in rotation;
    5. the design for arrows;
    6. the design guidelines of the circle versus the oval, the square versus the rectangle;
    7. the minimal distance required between lines;
    8. the persistency in the positioning of the braille cell with regard to the specific element to be identifie;
    9. the combinations of reliefs with the relative importance of the graphic components; etc.


The GRAPHTACT productions are visually attractive. But this quality can become a trap for one who forgets the primary reason for the system and the difference between a visual and a tactual perception. True GRAPHTACT produces highly precise reliefs of complex graphic representations, but these can be, in the end, tactually indiscriminable. This has brought me to reflect on an additional challenge posed by graphic material destined for tactual readers. To the technological and standardization challenge is added that of adaptation, and consequently interpretation.

Beyond the sharing of responsibilities (for example, who answers for the adaptation of the illustration from a published work, thus with copyrights?) and beyond the opinions of those who insist that tactual illustrations have the same aspect as their visual counterparts (a conduct due to the lack of information and sensitivity), the task of adapting the visual illustration which almost always needs interpretation is both an essentiel and delicate step. It should take into account:

    • the technology used for the production of the tactual display (objective elements that the adaptor should master perfectly);
    • the resources and the limits of tactual reading (considering that readers must learn to manipulate and interpret the material);
    • the various elements of the visual display and especially their degree of importance.

Parallel to defining an ensemble of basic standards, a definition asked of the project which I direct, one important aspect is to determine and suggest a structured approach for the analysis of the visual representation, for example to enumerate the various components, to classify them, to place them in an order of importance, to relate them to the information to be communicated, etc. Such a preliminary analysis could, it seems to me, make certain choices less arbitrary. It would also help to associate the more important elements to the tactual components most discernable by the reader. I can only hope that researchers will work more and more on a methodology for the analysis of visual illustrations.  Such a methodology could be tested in the area of adaptation of visual material to tactual production and thereby contribute to the increase of both legibility and understanding.


The GRAPHTACT system constitutes already a fine tool that is constantly being improved. However, it is and will only be essentially an efficient tool. It is up to us to pursue this work in order to furnish it with graphic material better and better adapted to tactual reading.

Nicole Trudeau Ph.D.
Université du Québec à Montréal



1 a) Trudeau N. / Code de transcription de l’imprimé en braille, tome 1,  / Info-Doc (Bulletin of the Document Center of the Institut Nazareth et Louis Braille and École Jacques Ouellette) / 1992; 6, 1 : 114-118.

1 b) Trudeau N. /Code pour la transcription en braille de l’imprimé, tome 1, revised and corrected edition, published under the  direction of the Ministry of Education, Government of Québec, 1996.

2. Murphy P. / The Microcomputer and Tactual Graphics. Closing the Gap, 1989; 8, 3: 14.

3. Miastkwski S. / Printer Generates Tactile Graphics for the Blind  / Byte, 1990; 15, 3: 24, 28.

4. a) Trudeau N. / La décennie de la réappropriation du braille par les aveugles et de la revalorisation du sens du toucher.  Élargir les horizons, Perspectives scientifiques sur l’intégration sociale Office des personnes handicapées du Québec (proceedings of the International Scientific Colloquium / Les limitations fonctionnelles et leurs conséquences sociales : bilan et prospectives / 18-19-20 November, 1992, Montreal) / Montréal : Editions Multimondes, 1994: 887-895.

4. b) Trudeau N, Dubuisson C. / Tactile Graphics in Braille Texts.  Conference proceedings World Congress on Technology / Arlington, Virginia, 1991, 4: 382-400.



Le système GRAPHTACT est une innovation technologique dédiée à la production tactile du matériel graphique. Ce système a été développé dans le cadre d’’un vaste projet de normalisation du braille, projet en cours à l’Université du Québec à Montréal.  Conçu tant à partir des observations accumulées que des besoins de la clientèle à  desservir, celle du milieu scolaire, le système GRAPHTACT permet l’utilisation, entre autres, de trois reliefs différents, de textures de lignes et de surfaces, du papier fort (le papier braille), d’annotations en braille, etc. De plus, GRAPHTACT dessine avec précision et netteté et offre une qualité tactile supérieure. Pendant que l’équipe technique associée au projet poursuit le développement et le raffinement du système, une urgence s’impose au dossier de la recherche : celle de l’élaboration d’une approche structurée de l’analyse de l’image visuelle. Une telle approche semble de plus en plus nécessaire, sinon indispensable, à l’adaptation tactile de cette image. Le système GRAPHTACT est un outil prometteur à mettre au service de planches tactiles à bien concevoir.


Article publié dans : 

New Technologies in the Education of the Visually Handicapped / Ed. D. Burger / Colloque INSERM/John Libbey Eurotext Ltd. 1996, Vol. 237, pp. 205-211 / Nicole Trudeau, Ph.D. / From the Braille Printer to Graphtact.


Sur des sujets apparentés :

 De l’imprimante braille à GRAPHTACT

Tactile Graphics in Braille Texts

Tactile Graphics in Braille Texts (en français)

Vers la normalisation du graphisme tactile

La normalisation du graphisme tactile

Le prototype Graphtact

Procédure d’utilisation et spécifications du prototype Graphtact

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