Thesis manuscript - PDF
Résumé détaillé en français - PDF


Despite their omnipresence and essential role in our everyday lives, online and printed graphical representations are inaccessible to visually impaired people because they cannot be explored using the sense of touch.

The gap between sighted and visually impaired people’s access to graphical representations is constantly growing due to the increasing development and availability of online and dynamic representations that not only give sighted people the opportunity to access large amounts of data, but also to interact with them using advanced functionalities such as panning, zooming and filtering. In contrast, the techniques currently used to make maps and diagrams accessible to visually impaired people require the intervention of tactile graphics specialists and result in non-interactive tactile representations.

However, based on recent advances in the automatic production of content, we can expect in the coming years a growth in the availability of adapted content, which must go hand-in-hand with the development of affordable and usable devices. In particular, these devices should make full use of visually impaired users’ perceptual capacities and support the display of interactive and updatable representations.

A number of research prototypes have already been developed. Some rely on digital representation only, and although they have the great advantage of being instantly updatable, they provide very limited tactile feedback, which makes their exploration cognitively demanding and imposes heavy restrictions on content. On the other hand, most prototypes that rely on digital and physical representations allow for a two-handed exploration that is both natural and efficient at retrieving and encoding spatial information, but they are physically limited by the use of a tactile overlay, making them impossible to update. Other alternatives are either extremely expensive (e.g. braille tablets) or offer a slow and limited way to update the representation (e.g. maps that are 3D-printed based on users’ inputs).

In this thesis, we propose to bridge the gap between these two approaches by investigating how to develop physical interactive maps and diagrams that support two-handed exploration, while at the same time being updatable and affordable. To do so, we build on previous research on Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) and particularly on (actuated) tabletop TUIs, two fields of research that have surprisingly received little interest concerning visually impaired users.

Based on the design, implementation and evaluation of three tabletop TUIs (the Tangible Reels, the Tangible Box and BotMap), we propose innovative non-visual interaction techniques and technical solutions that will hopefully serve as a basis for the design of future TUIs for visually impaired users, and encourage their development and use.

We investigate how tangible maps and diagrams can support various tasks, ranging from the (re)construction of diagrams to the exploration of maps by panning and zooming. From a theoretical perspective we contribute to the research on accessible graphical representations by highlighting how research on maps can feed research on diagrams and vice-versa. We also propose a classification and comparison of existing prototypes to deliver a structured overview of current research.


The jury was composed of:

  • Timo Götzelmann], Professor, Nuremberg Institute of Technology
  • Brygg Ullmer, Professor, School of Computing, Clemson University
  • Emmanuel Dubois, Professor, IRIT, Université Toulouse 3 Paul Sabatier
  • Julie Lemarié), Associate Professor, CLLE, Université Toulouse 2 Jean Jaures
  • Valérie Maquil, Researcher, Luxembourg Institute of Technology