If you have full use of your eyes, you probably take it for granted that you always know where you are. That’s partly because you have a device in your pocket that can give turn-by-turn directions to and from anywhere in the world, and partly thanks to the combination of visual cues in the environment that you compare against the mapping software, like street signs and landmarks.

For the visually-impaired, Google Maps and GPS systems aren’t always so accessible -- and not just because they can’t actually see the map on the screen. Turn-by-turn walking directions can be imprecise and can distract a user from auditory awareness of their environment, which is full of meaningful noises like traffic sounds and other people’s voices.

That’s why a group of students from the Copenhagen Institute for Design is developing BlindMaps, a tactile-feedback mapping and navigation system for visually-impaired users. Though still in the research and prototyping phase, the concept gives new meaning to the phrase ‘touch-screen.’

As envisioned, BlindMaps is a small Bluetooth peripheral that would be held in the hand or attached to the handle of a cane. The top surface of the device is perforated, and small plastic pegs can be raised and lowered through the holes -- like a low-res pixelated screen, but designed for touch instead of sight. A user searches for directions on their phone using voice commands, and the turn-by-turn navigation is translated into a series of patterns on the touch interface. Pegs adjust in real time to reflect the user’s position and distance to upcoming turns or intersections, leaving the ears free to pay attention to the surroundings.

Braille Interface Navigation: BlindMaps
Braille Interface Navigation: BlindMaps

BlindMaps began when Markus Schmeiduch, Andrew Spitz, and Ruben van der Vleuten were given a 36-hour design assignment, which included blindfolded street research, prototyping and mockups. They also conceived of an open mapping database that would gather both passive and active feedback from users about hazards and other navigation issues, and create routes that avoid trouble spots in the future. Creating a kind of OpenStreetMap specifically for seeing impaired individuals through its usage.

BlindMaps won the “Next Idea” award from Ars Electronica earlier this year, which includes grant money to continue development. The team will spend the summer in residency at Futurelab, and will exhibit BlindMaps at the Ars Electronica Festival in September.

See the video below for a conceptual demonstration of BlindMaps in action.

Related: BlindSpot, HyperBraille


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