What started nine years ago with the creation of the Tactile Map Automated Production (TMAP) system for California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system has developed into an audio-tactile graphic map to increase accessibility for the visually impaired.
Dr. Joshua Miele and his team at the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Development Center are once again working alongside San Francisco’s LightHouse organization to make travelling easier with easy access to information.
“BART maps has been one of the ways I’ve been working on making information more accessible,” said Miele. “I developed a tool in 2004 called TMAPs and it was and is the only way a person can get the tactile feel of anyplace they want.”
Most people can go to Google Streetview or Google Maps and retrieve a lot of information, but those with visual impairments cannot get that same spatial context and information hence the creation of TMAPs. However, much of the Braille maps now are too cramped with information and certain areas are not labeled due to lack of space.
Miele and LightHouse are now working to launch the audio-tactile graphic maps in 43 of the 44 station stops. The project is a few months from being released.
These new maps allow people to explore the area through Braille, as well as audio stimulation. The maps incorporate Braille into its design, but it is not dense with information.
To get a more in-depth experience, you can employ a smart pen to touch the graphics and a computer will inform you about the part of the map you are touching. The use of smart pens is particularly adaptable for uses outside the public transportation system.
“There has been a lot of positive responses and the interest continues to grow,” said Frank Welte, information resource specialist and strip map coordinator of LightHouse. “A lot of people, not just the blind, are excited for the audio-tactile maps to help with their orientation of where they are and have to be.”
The importance of this technology is that once these maps are implemented, they’ll not only be useful to transit, but for other maps as well, added Wente.
“You can almost incorporate a guide book into the map, which is a future possibility,” he said.
The technology already exists in various forms but needs to be applied everywhere, said Mark Roccobono, executive director with the National Federation of the Blind, which is a membership-based organization of blind people in the United States.
“If we can get engineers and others to design technology with accessibility in mind from the beginning, we can then use technology that everybody else can use. It would be the same information, at the same time, at a different price, though we would access it through Braille or audio,” said Roccobono. “The importance of public transportation and having the technology make it accessible is helpful.”
He pointed to the audio and visual cues that most buses now have that announce which stop is coming up. In this case, audio cues are also helpful for visitors to the city or if English isn’t your first language.
There are other companies and organizations working to make information more accessible to blind people around the world, but Miele added that those projects aren’t currently at the scale of his team’s projects.
However, Roccobono noted the biggest problem facing blind people isn’t blindness itself, it is more the public attitudes toward blindness and technology doesn’t change that.
“One thing it (technology) does change is access to information,” he added.
The series explores how advancements in assistive technology are helping the visually impaired and the disabled.
Originally posted in TechPageOne.