Navigating big institutions, like college campuses and museums, can be tricky for the blind and visually impaired. GPS doesn’t work inside buildings, and few alternatives to hand-held refreshable braille devices exist. But instead of giving out flat paper maps, a handful of schools are beginning to install a new kind of map that can be explored by sound and touch.
Three years ago, private company Touch Graphics and the University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center) teamed up to install their first talking, interactive map at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts. Since then, the same team has installed two more versions—one at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind and another the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller once studied as a teenager. The latest installation, at Perkins, boasts a 3-D printed model coated in touch-sensitive paint that activates audio instructions.
"Whenever a person touches a map they get audio feedback," explains IDeA Center researcher Heamchand Subryan. "They get the name of the building if they touch it, and then they can dive down into further details. If it’s a reception space, it’ll tell them it’s a reception space and there’s a directory of who’s inhabiting that space."
The Perkins School talking map also features an overhead projector that can cast dazzling Google Earth aerial views onto the 3-D model. Adding the extra functionality to appeal to sighted users goes to the heart of the model’s inclusive mission, Subryan says. The talking maps aren’t just for the blind; they can help anyone create a mental map of a space by engaging more senses than vision alone.
Subryan and Touch Graphics president Steve Landau have bigger plans for the maps, too. If the maps can help sighted and blind users alike, why not install them everywhere? Malls, museums, and college campuses all over could likely benefit from more interactive orienteering.
"I see the maps themselves being used in a lot of different places besides a center for the blind or a school for the blind," Subryan says. "They can be used by everyone."