Virtual Maps for the Blind: A Whole New Level of Accessibility

Vitual Maps for the BlindWhen web developers think about designing an interactive map or virtual tour one thing that comes up, especially in the education world, is Section 508 compliance.  The basic guidelines for Section 508 is that Federal agencies are required to make electronic and information technology accessible to individuals with disabilities.  With many public education institutes being government entities this requirement also falls on them.  Interactive maps are specifically designed with multimedia elements to enhance the experience, but what happens for those individuals who are blind?

A recent article in Science Daily, Virtual Maps for the Blind, introduces some new technology that effectively allows blind individuals to feel their way around a virtual environment before actually going and exploring the real environment.  The software works through a joystick that stiffens when a user meets a virtual wall or barrier.  The software can also produce sounds when a user nears specifically defined locations in the environment.

Exploring 3D virtual worlds based on maps of real-world environments, the blind are able to “feel out” streets, sidewalks and hallways with the joystick as they move the cursor like a white cane on the computer screen that they will never see. Before going out alone, the new solution gives them the control, confidence and ability to explore new streets making unknown spaces familiar. It allows people who can’t see to make mental maps in their mind.

The tool transmits textures to the fingers and can distinguish among surfaces like tiled floors, asphalt, sidewalks and grass. In theory, any unknown space, indoors or out, can be virtually pre-explored, says Dr. Lahav. The territory just needs to be mapped first — and with existing applications like GIS (geography information system), the information is already there.

The BlindAid is already in Use in Education Environments

The article also goes on to tell us this tool, called the BlindAid, is currently being used at the Carroll Center for the Blind.  The Carroll Center for the Blind is a rehabilitation center located in Newton, Massachusetts where blind individuals are already able to explore the campus and 10 other sites.  This ability to walk through a new environment a few times in a fashion that is comfortable to the individual is already allowing them to create a mental map before physically exploring the locations.  This added sense of confidence is a welcome confidence boost to allow these individuals to be more independent and literally be out of the dark.

New technologies like this will continue to be developed and provide additional levels of functionality that will eventually make it into online mapping interfaces.  The ability to serve a larger and more diverse audience is in everyone’s best interest and makes individuals with disabilities feel less like outsiders.  This is simply another great example of technology stepping in and advancing what was previously impossible.

Photo: courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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One comment

  • Fred Waligora February 9, 2010  

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