My second final project for the Introduction to Digital Humanities class is attempting to provide some answer to the question of how we (should) describe objects to (born) blind people. We often hear that blind people think in concepts, thus they cannot imagine many of the things we are describing. However, I believe that if we resort to a certain vocabulary in our discussions with them, it is possible to help them to have a closer idea of the physicality of the objects. The vocabulary I have found to be helpful in this sense is the one that uses their senses and immediate objects such as parts of their bodies and objects they use daily (e.g. bed, table). The way the project was designed is described below, together with some of the findings and limits occurred during the process.
The reason why I see this as a digital humanist project is because it is addressing an issue some people are facing and it brings up a digital form of better understanding the communication issues between the respective group of people and the rest of us.
I have asked several friends to try and describe a common object of their choice (which I would not have known about) in such a way that the description only consists of words from their immediate familiarity. The following step was to try and recreate each of the objects in a 3D form using SketchUp and look at the final results in comparison with how the typical object looks like. The findings come, however, not only from observing the similarities and the differences between the two images, but also from the decisions I had to make while reconstructing the objects.
The descriptions were written in either English or Romanian, depending on who the person describing was. Since I required my friends to use a basic and familiar vocabulary, none of the descriptions imposed any language barrier in my understanding. One example is quoted below:
You can trace the round form around its top with your fingers. It is a pleasurable sensation that goes down around the rounded shape to the bottom of it, that can be put into your palm as you examine its cylindrical shape. It is as tall as you can grab the space between your index and your thumb. If you turn it around, you can feel a small curvature that smoothly contours an unfilled space between the body of the cylinder and the external outline. The top has no lid and nothing is more satisfactory than to try the emptiness with the tip of your nose, as you approach it to your face. Sometimes it is cold and empty, sometimes it is hot and spreads chills through the pores of your nostrils, as the vapors surface the top. (Model 2)
Once I had collected the descriptions, I recreated the objects in SketchUp. All the models can be seen and interacted with below. They are uploaded on 3DWarehouse and embedded from there on the blog. The viewer can interact with each of the models by clicking on it and then dragging the image around, from left to right, up and down. The process of recreating the objects implied making some decisions such as:
- where the descriptions only indicated “there is a line” (e.g. Model 1, the necklace’s lace), I had to choose between drawing a vertical one and horizontal one. The description only mentioned that the spherical object (the pendant) was attached to a string (a line).
- at the same time, the pendant is not near the body, but rather floating in front of it, as the description did not indicate whether to place it, and only specified “it is one palm below the heart.” I now notice that I have instinctively placed it in the middle of the chest, rather than under the heart (which is because I realized as I was drawing what the object was)
- for the second model, when I met the word “curvature” in the description, I had to choose whether the curvature would be within or outside of the object. I did not understand until the very last line what the described object was (a mug), so I was not tempted to make the curvature outside of the object.
- at the same time, for the second object, the description only specified that it was an object of a cylindrical shape which fit into one’s palm, so the way I created it was much smaller than the real-life proportions.
- the description of the second necklace included a word I was unfamiliar with in English (“clasps”). They were placed at the end of each side of the metal round, so I decided to make a round at each end. This description also included the letter “R” as being placed on the pendant. However, since a blind person does not use our alphabet I decided not to add it in the model.
- the second description of the necklace did not specify a place where it should be placed, so I chose to draw it on the ground.
The modeling results are below:
Model 1 – the Necklace #1
Model 2 – the Mug
Model 3 – the Necklace #2
One of the most interesting facts I learnt while experiencing (at a much smaller scale, however) what the blind person would experience when trying to recreate an object is that it is indeed, possible, to make them have an idea of what objects are like (not to picture them in their mind necessarily, but to recreate them by moving their hands, for example, or by placing them in space). At the same time, having two people (surprisingly) describing the same item (a necklace) gave me the chance to make a comparison between the two demonstrations. Other findings include:
- the blind must be told the position and placement of each element of the object. Since the concepts of “in,” “out,” “above, ” and “under” are easy for them to experience, these are obligatory when describing objects to them;
- it is also necessary to indicate the size of the object in comparison with something they already know about. For example, if the description of the second model specified that the object is bigger than one palm (and not only that it fits there), as well as that its width is 5-6 times the width of a palm, it would have been easier for the person imagining the object to grasp the size of the object they are dealing with.
- in the end, i consider both descriptions of the necklaces to be as good as the other because they did not pose difficulty in understanding which elements should be placed where; the only issue was the lack of more useful positional and formal information.
One important mention I wish to make about the project is that it was rather a test of how well we can empathize with the blind and how much we can help them better understand the physical world around them. Although many of the decisions I made in designing the objects might have been instinctively taken (since I am someone who has interacted with similar descriptions for all their life) and, thus, the resulting 3D models much closer to reality than what a blind person would actually see, I believe that this could be indeed a step in adapting our vocabulary and description patterns to their needs.