Tactopus brings a range of inclusive
audio-tactile learning products
#JoyofReading : Primarily designed for children with visual impairment, these products are also beneficial for those with developmental delays and learning disabilities.
Co-founded by Chandni Rajendran and Saloni Mehta, classmates at the Industrial Design Centre (IDC), IIT Bombay, Tactopus brings to the world multi-sensory and engaging learning experiences for children, specially designed for the needs of children with vision loss. It was the duo’s deep interest in bridging gaps in access to education that brought them together to work on this project. They have been working on it for about three years and launched Tactopus in 2019. The books are supported by the Tactopus mobile app that plays audio corresponding to what the child is exploring in the tactile book with his/her fingers through. Although primarily designed for children with visual impairment, these products have been known to be beneficial for children with developmental delays and learning disabilities as well.
Edited excerpts of a freewheeling chat with Mehta, Co-Founder, Tactopus:
What was the thought behind starting Tactopus?
When Chandni and I were doing our Masters in Interaction Design at IDC, IIT Bombay, Chandni did a summer internship at Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) with Sam Taraporewala and Neha Trivedi. That’s where she came across tactile graphics, and also instantly realized that the experience of reading tactile graphics could be substantially enhanced by the use of technology. Since then, she has been working on the design, tech, and development of an interactive tactile learning system. I have my own experience in social impact work, came on board, and together we started a company to focus on multi-sensory resources for early learning needs.
We are now supported by Social Alpha (a Tata Trust initiative) and IDFC First and have a dedicated team of eight working on bringing more products to life.
How easy or difficult was it to come out with a tactile range of books? What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
One of the challenges we face is the complexity of content development for this novel medium of interaction. Every concept required us to strip it down to the basics, reconsider the pedagogy used for sighted people, and reinvent how it can be taught using tactile material and an interactive voice companion. It’s professionally very rewarding to work on this challenge, and there’s seemingly no shortcut around this. We can’t adapt textbooks directly into this format, because we’re aiming for the highest quality of interactive learning. The experience needs to be engaging and intuitive enough for blind toddlers to find it interesting and learn on their own, and that’s not an easy feat. This is perhaps the edge that our team has – the multi-disciplinary approach and our always-open-to-collaborate attitude, which makes us seek feedback and opinions from all stakeholders at every stage of the design and development.
Please share the details of the entire range.
We have a range of products to cater to tactile learning needs of children with vision loss. Currently, we are working on a pipeline of interactive books and games.
Each experience needs three components:
- Tactile: Books, cards, board games, etc. that have tactile images and can be physically experienced
- Mobile application: Free to download from the play store, the application responds with appropriate audio cues that guide the child to best use the tactile products. We use computer vision to make responses contextual i.e. the audio always corresponds exactly to the tactile component that the child is currently playing with.
- Stand: This holds the mobile phone in the perfect position to allow the experience to seamless. This allows immersive engagement for the child without needing a parent to always hold the phone in place.
The currently released product range includes:
My Counting Book & Cards: Focused on the counting of basic numbers (0 – 9) with tactile objects and corresponding number cards. An interactive activity book of numbers that facilitates fun and independent learning with instant feedback for the child.
What makes you special? Focused on introducing the animal kingdom to kids. As the child feels the animal through his/her fingers – the app supplements it with sounds and facts about the animal.
Children’s Nursery Rhymes: A bundle of 8 rhyme cards – each with a nursery rhyme that plays on the app when scanned.
Tic-Tac-Toe: A tactile game board of the classic X-O game, with a 9×9 ultimate version!
You can always find the latest list and pricing on tactopus.com/store
What are the different products in the pipeline?
Additionally, we are working on a long pipeline of interactive books and games. Games that enable a child to independently practice basic numbers and mathematical operations are releasing soon!
We also want to work with other publishers of tactile and audiobooks, to help them stitch the audio-tactile experience together.
What has been your takeaways of being in this business?
One of the more gratifying things, is also that we see sighted children equally excited about our books as they’re fairly used to on-screen tech but the interactions on tangible material still feel novel and bewildering to them. Since inclusion is as strong a focus for us as access, we’re doing what we can to promote these books to inclusive/integrated schools. We’re planning reading events and play-days for children with or without disabilities to demonstrate how playful learning can be a strong social connector, given the right resources and open minds.
How can one buy it?
How has been people’s response?
At many of our tests and trials, when the product isn’t even half ready, the children have asked if they could keep the games and books. It makes us remember how much of a difference our work makes to blind children, and is a huge motivation to keep at it.
From parents and teachers, we have been taking constant feedback, so we’re able to build resources for specific areas where they need help.
One frequent thing we hear is that more than tactile graphics, it is the interactive learning that is more important. Because sighted children have access to thousands of apps on smart devices, apart from many digital resources in schools. There has been no significant development in digital products for blind children, and that difference puts blind children at a huge disadvantage.
“Interactive and sensorial learning is what our children don’t have access to. There are many people making tactile graphics, but this (audio-tactile learning system) is highly beneficial because it helps make the children learn independently.”
Rebecca Carvalho, Special-Educator at Xavier’s’ Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Mumbai
“Even as an adult, I can learn so many new things with these tactile books and activities. There is a lot of catching up to do.”
Ruchir Falodiya, Tata Unistore
“Tactopus is an amazing application that could be used in many different ways by children and adults with visual impairment. I especially like the self-learning aspect of it which is a useful learning strategy without getting into the hassle of dealing with the emotions of the teacher. As a teacher, I foresee the application of this where repeated exposure and least assistance from a human is required, like in a map or interpretation of a picture in a story. I see good potential application in interactive games too which is an area unexplored by children who are visually impaired.”
Shanthala, Teacher of students who are visually impaired, Vividha
- A 26-year-old with congenital blindness has a degree in computer applications and management and works as a pan-India social media marketing manager. Until a year back, he had never had access to a map of India, or the world map. When Tactopus made an India political map and a state map in an audio-tactile format, he was able to better understand geographies and correlate that information with his work. He also complains of underdeveloped math skills as he never had the resources to practice math, the way many of his sighted classmates did.
The math games we’re developing for early learning will be useful for him even as an adult.
- 12-year-old Visalakshi was born blind and has mild cerebral palsy. She has not been accepted at any blind school as she is non-verbal and teachers were not equipped to educate her. She stays at home, listens to music all day, is paranoid about touching new things and does not explore her surroundings like children her age should. Her aunt heard about Tactopus and bought her our books on animals and counting.
Visalakshi would normally not readily explore tactile graphics, and it takes a lot of assistance from her mother. When we made the Tactopus audio assistant play her favourite nursery rhymes to go with different animal tactile, she opened up and began exploring the pictures with her fingertips. Her parents have expressed the wish that could buy many more Tactopus books, as they want to provide their daughter with all the resources they would have been able to give her if she did not have a disability.