Howie Romans — Innovative TI’TAINS to Play while Learning 

close up of someone playing with TI"TIAN blocks, inserting cards in crevices of blocks
Howard’s TI’TAINS block

Mid-lockdown in December 2020, Howie Romans was inspired to create TI’TAINS, an interlocking construction toy that focuses on sustainability and accessibility. Made with biodegradable materials, TI’TAINS supports gameplay for blind or low vision players in a multitude of settings including table top role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. TI’TAINS further supports accessibility in a learning setting as a potential therapeutic tool utilized by Occupational Therapists, Art Therapists, Counselors and more.

ABILITY Magazine’s Jennifer Woodall met with creator Howie Romans in a virtual interview to discuss accessibility in the toy world, being a homegrown start up in a multi-billion-dollar industry, limitless potentials and advocating for inclusive play for all ages.

Woodall: Can you give me a little bit of an explanation of what TI’TAINS are?
howard titains logo
Romans: So, it’s really innovative and versatile. I had the idea for it in December 2020, so the height of the COVID quarantine. Everyone’s on lockdown, and we’re playing with all types of different building instruction toy products. Pretty much everything that a lot of people are familiar with like your Magna-Tiles, your Lincoln Logs, your LEGOs, and with our three kids, I’m like, “Hey, what else can we build?” So, we went down this exciting journey of designing and developing. It is really a ‘LEGO-like’ building and construction toy, and the reason I say ‘LEGO-like’, whenever trying to communicate the idea to other people, the closest, most similar thing that people know is LEGO. All of the outreach I’ve done, talking to different professionals, occupational therapists, art therapists— Boy, it’s really a laundry list. —From what I’m seeing, it’s more than just a toy and more of a therapeutic tool or device or aid. I, by no means, want to make any claims, but there definitely seems to be that from the impressions and feedback and input that we’ve received from people.

So, as far as its capabilities, you can build spectacular structures. It really evolved from this idea of card stacking. With TI’TAINS, I’ve been able to create some pretty cool structures and towers of cards. That’s the base concept around it. It really exists at the intersection of several different play patterns. The idea of a building and construction toy product like LEGO or K’nex, but then also like a Crayola-type product utilizing blank white playing cards where really your imagination is the limit, where you can draw, color, and paint, and you can create mixtures that apply different textures to the card.

Then, it’s this idea of accessibility and applying Braille to cards as well. I have been in touch with the Braille Institute teacher of the year 2012, and it’s a very exciting path that we’re going on right now with this idea of starting to explore accessibility. I see it as being at the forefront of a lot of toy trends, being potentially culturally significant, and leading the way with the idea of applying Braille and really starting to explore this idea of creating a tactile Braille literacy training system or program.

It’s very exciting. There are a lot of different use cases for it. Almost every day, I get an email from somebody saying, “Hey, I used it to create Dungeons for TTRPG.” So tabletop role-playing games. We took a trip out to Lake Geneva, WI because every year there is the world’s leading TTRPG —so like Dungeons & Dragons—conference.
Woodall: I didn’t know that was up there. I love Dungeons & Dragons.

Romans: Oh, really?

Woodall: Yeah, I play every week with my brother and some friends. I love it.

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Romans: I had this epiphany, and I started to go down this route because I found there’s definitely an underserved population of people that have very strong accessibility needs and requirements. I think people are just not really thinking about these things sometimes. The convention is Gary Con, and I networked with a few people, and I had that epiphany that, “Hey, this can make TTRPGs, board games, and even more broadly than that, games or play and fun more accessible with applying Braille to the cards. That’s also going down this route of reaching out to these underserved populations. Richard, for example, is a fully blind gentleman with Knights of the Braille. It’s a group of fully blind, partially blind, and a community that’s really become quite near and dear to my heart because I’ve had my own personal struggles with my eyesight. I said, “Hey, if I send you some TI’TAINS and some cards, can you give me some feedback?” I think it’s exciting to see the emergence of accessibility consultants as well, where these individuals can actually earn a living from providing consulting services to companies.
Romans: I think it’s pretty exciting to see this accessibility start to permeate in the popular culture. I did reach out to him and he gave me a lot of very valuable insights about writing Braille on the cards to signify doors or windows. Things that would exist in a dungeon, but not just confined to a dungeon, also building out different terrain. One very insightful thing that he brought up was this idea of anchoring using TI’TAINS to anchor, whether it’s pieces or miniatures. This is something that I think those who are able-bodied, who have sight, might take for granted. When you reach across the game table and you knock over a piece, whether that’s your miniature or it’s your dungeon walls, that’s actually a huge thing to those with blindness or low vision. It sounds very simple when you talk about it, but no one really thinks about these things until somebody starts to invent something like this. I’m starting to explore that idea of using tape or other adhesives to anchor it to a gameplay table.
the braille edition of UNO with braille label
UNO with Braille
Woodall: So, when you talk about it being ‘LEGO-like’, do you mean the pieces can interconnect into each other? Also, when you put the cards in it, you’re putting the cards into these slots. So, can you make all sorts of different shapes and three-dimensional structures if you want to?
Romans: That’s exactly right. We are venturing into the unknown, but there’s a lot of discussion I’ve had with consultants. We’re actually consulting with a gentleman who was with the Mattel Toy Company. He was in the toy industry for over 20 years. I did ask him one day, “Have you ever seen anything that proposes anything like what we’re proposing to do here?” and he flat out said, “No, I have not seen this.”. It’s a building and construction toy, but it’s also very different from LEGO in the sense that it’s not the same movements or play patterns. What we’re trying to do with TI’TAINS is this more of a radical breakthrough, really trying to create something new and different existing really at the intersection of those different play patterns.
The accessibility side really excites me because it’s something that, here we are in 2024, and it wasn’t until fairly recently, the 2020s, where companies have really even started to think in this way. You can see evidence in the fact that it was also in September that Lego officially released their Braille bricks. This is a company that’s been around for decades, and I will give them credit for the fact that this has been a project they’ve been working on for maybe three or four years. I think maybe they started in 2019, and they did send a lot of Braille bricks to various institutions that serve those with blindness or low vision. By no means am I putting them down. I do admire what they’re doing, but I think just in general, the toy industry is a very slow.  It’s built in bureaucracy of these billion-dollar companies like Mattel or Hasbro. I think Hasbro actually owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns Dungeons and Dragons. Related to D&D, I was coming across some accessibility individuals online who are talking about, “Hey, we need to make these games more accessible so that everyone can benefit from them and enjoy them.”
Woodall: I feel like, especially with games like D&D, where so much of it is imagination-based, there’s a lot of ground that you can cover really quickly by making just a few aspects of it more accessible. Getting an electronic dice roller that would read out the number to you, or something like TI’TAINS, where you have these Braille structures that you can build with. It’s a few changes that can open up a huge world to a lot of people.
Romans: I came across the work of an individual named Jennifer Kretchmer. She is a Dungeon Master, and she has disabilities, and she’s been a very vocal advocate for this. On the same token, you do have this other side that says, “Hey, maybe not everyone should be invited to the table.” There is that tension. I think that by taking a stance like this, that it’s the right thing to do. You don’t want to exclude; you want to include people.
Woodall: Yeah, for sure. With Braille on the cards, are you thinking about putting multiple identifiers on the card so you can say ‘pink wall’ or something like that, and have it laid out where there’s more than one identifier for the card?
Romans: Yeah, the sky is the limit, I think. It actually makes a very compelling case from a sustainability vantage point. There’s just something to this idea of blending TI’TAINS with the blank playing cards, but then also offering the cards with Braille. I’m really excited because I don’t think I’ve actually seen it in retail. Maybe it’s just starting to come out, more accessibility. In my mind, why wouldn’t you want play and fun, the most core aspect of being a human, to be something that is accessible for everyone to enjoy.

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Woodall: Yeah. There’re a lot of features; there’s a lot of potential and possibility for sure, but if you had to pick a favorite, what do you think your favorite feature of TI’TAINS is?
Romans: I created a bit of a science project around it of mixing baking soda with paint. I used little bottles of white or different-colored acrylic paint. I put them in a little bowl. I mix them around to create a bit of a solution, I apply it, paint it onto the cards, and it creates a hardened texture. It is a feature in the sense that I think it’s also lending to this accessibility of now you can actually create the bumps and the rough texture that could otherwise be snowy avalanche, like arctic terrain. There is definitely something to mixing that play pattern, that building and construction, also with that art, creativity and expression. In this case, we have three kiddos and they’re all playing with it together, engaging in different playback patterns together.
I think therein also lies a lot of potential for the tactile and the Braille literacy system. Right now, speaking to that, I’ve been basically recreating and reimagining the LEGO Braille bricks. They have pre-braille and braille activities on their website, and they’re really great. This goes also to submitting this project to the NBP, the National Braille Press. Every year, they have an annual Louis Braille Prize for Innovation. It was probably 2-3 months of assembling all the letters of recommendation supporting the project. I actually did just hear back from them confirming that they had received everything. I definitely see an opportunity to create a LEGO Braille bricks alternative. It would be more of a homegrown solution, whereas Lego is Denmark headquartered. Now, they did break ground in a facility in Virginia, and I think that’s going to open next year, I believe. But in the spirit of good-hearted competition and just striving to best serve people, I’m really excited that it’s possible that as a small startup that we could actually possibly compete with a multibillion-dollar international company.
Woodall: Yeah, for sure. So, you could mix potentially all sorts of things into the paint and make miniature scenes and experiences that expand more outside of the ‘kid’ range and into the ‘adult’ range as well. It seems like this covers a broad age range.
Romans: Well, and I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been obsessed with reading and watching YouTube videos about toy trends. For the last 2-3 years, it’s been a very interesting trend towards what they call the ‘kidult’. The 13 years or older. I’m at the tail end. I’m like a geriatric millennial.

Woodall: I am, too. (laughs)

multi creviced blocks squarish blocks that fit together, image of the atent drawing
TI’TAINS patent

Romans: I think there is definitely something to that idea. What I’ve noticed, too, in sales and customer reviews, is it seems to be predominantly used by older individuals, which is exciting because we’re living longer. As you live longer, you’re also starting to encounter visual challenges. It is very interesting to think that this could very well be at the forefront of a potentially culturally significant thing. I can’t even begin to skim the surface of the possibilities. I envision one day having packs or sets or kits made that are like Dungeons and Dragons, but they include that play pattern of painting and coloring—even one day having color by number. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve done probably hundreds of hours of research now. I would say, TI’TAINS has a very versatile aspect to it as far as how you can connect the cards together, how you can slide them, how you can layer them and build them up and insert them. I think the biggest thing is showing that desire and that awareness to do something like this. The actual use and adoption of it has been very positive.

Woodall: You can make a standard rectangle, but also the TI’TAINS pieces have the capability of doing the things at an angle or at a curve right?  It doesn’t just have to be a square?
Romans: That was one of the thought processes. I had reached out and I had engaged a third party. It was actually a UK-based consultancy firm and we did a number of video calls throughout the pandemic. Where I was very lacking in the design capabilities, I brought this idea and this vision for the product. We did, probably, 5-10 different video calls over six months to a year, and we designed and we developed the product. Speaking to that point was this idea of creating a more versatile product. You can see that there’s a number of slots, and around it, but you can also separate it. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and it actually graduates inherently who can use the product by virtue of just how it’s designed. It can create more complex and elaborate structures. You’re disassembling them and you’re connecting cards in different manners. But, then it can also be used to make very, very basic – literally just inserting the cards and making walls. It’s been an exciting journey with this.

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Woodall: That’s super cool. If people want to purchase TI’TAINS, how do they do that?
Romans: Right now, we do have them available on Etsy. We would love to get them on to Amazon. I would love to one day be able to get them into Target or Walmart. Actually, I think we’ve made a pretty compelling case. It just takes some convincing that there is something there. Then, again, we’re talking about a toy industry that is a multi-billion-dollar industry. In my research, some of these companies are not the most nimble when it comes to innovation. Perhaps there are stories out there of the person at the bottom who has this genius idea, but it’s got to go through 15 levels of bureaucracy before it gets approval.
Woodall: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to mention about TI’TAINS?
Romans: I am planning to move forward with more of a multi-sensory approach to tactile and Braille literacy. On my YouTube channel, I’m really starting to explore this idea of creating activities – so pre-Braille and Braille activities – that also integrate the sense of smell and playing around with the idea of the paint and baking soda and the textures. I just think there is so much potential to create something that provides and serves that population.

TI’TAINS on Etsy

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