Tactile Maps Research

One of the things I am interested in is the subject of accessibility in navigation. Particularly tactile maps and how they can offer important navigational information to those who are blind or visually impaired.

I am just about to begin a PhD into the study of Tactile maps and hope to be able to talk more about my progress with that in future. In the mean time I wanted to talk about the work we have been doing as a communty project alongside the University of Kent to develop a tactile map of their Canterbury campus. This research page will continue to grow and document our progress of developing this particular tactile map.

Beginning

This project began its conception bizarrely following an evening hanging out with the legend David Kaffinetti who plays Viv Savage in the cult classic, This is Spinal Tap. Accessibility ties in very much with Viv's famous catchphrase in that we want everyone to 'have a good time all the time'.

Paul raised the subject that his is not always having a good time navigating around the university campus and found it far more difficult when he first came to the University of Kent. We decided then to do something about it. With support from the University of Kent School of Architecture, we started to work out a plan for how to solve this problem.

pictured left to right; George Rhodes, David Kaff, Nik Duncan, Ben Watson, Paul Georg-Ender

Planning

We wanted to look into the value of creating a tactile map for the campus to help new blind and visually impaired students orientate themselves when they arrive on campus. Now there are several examples of good tactile maps out there, the RNIB has created many bespoke tactile maps for train stations. Paul is very familiar with the bronze tactile maps found in Malberg, Germany.

The first thing we had to do was map out what we thought was important to users wanting to navigate the campus and then test those assumptions with real users.

A closeup picture of the bronze town map in Malberg Germany.

We thought about mapping the main roads and footpaths, crossings, bus stops / taxi rank, and the important buildings across the campus. One of the first things we did was start producing these information layers and plan how we were going to transfer this information to a physical object.

A map of the roads at the University of Kent Canterbury campus

Roads

Main roads are an important navigational tool and many orientate themselves in relation to where they know roads are. We also wanted this map to be useful to all visitors so know that roads were an essential elemen to include.

A map of the footpaths at the University of Kent Canterbury campus

Footpaths

Most of the usage for this tactile map will be in supporting users in navigating how to get to somewhere on campus by foot. With that in mind, displaying footpaths in a way that is clear can are not confused with nearby roads is essential.

Session 1

In the end we thought of a far easier way to get all of the information onto our map base rather than using the information layers I spent time merticulously creating.

Using a projector we overlayed Google Maps onto the map base and traced all of the information we wanted. Not the most advanced method but very effective.

This took almost a whole day to complete but was a very rewarding experience to see come together.

What we ended up with was a vast 6ft x 6ft map of the campus.

We were incredible please with the outcome, knowing that all of our designs were accurate to the real world environment, the scaling was consistent and that we felt the map was an appropriate size and its elements suitable spaced to give clear understanding.

To make my life easier when adding the tactile elements on top of this template we colour coded the map. Roads are in red, footpaths in blue, buildings in black and green spaces in green.

The next steps for us were to start thinking about what materials and shapes we would use to demonstrate different map elements. It was important to me that footpaths not only be spaced from roads enough to be distinct but also be distinct to touch as well. We had a lot of back and forth about how this could be achieved but in the end found a method and materials that can help us achieve a tactile and visually different set of footpaths and roads.

Session 2

Session 2 saw us working with the amazing Kevin from the University of Kent School of Architecture, who helped us plan out all of the buildings in CAD before laser cutting them all, gluing them together and delivering them to us in less than a week! There were more than 100 buildings to make so this was an incredible turn around. It was quite like a birthday for me, and we could not wait to get our presents out and start playing with them.

We set up the map, laid out all of the buildings and then sat down with Paul to get his initial reactions, which we caught on video.

We were so pleased to see the ease with which Paul started pointing out buildings and being able to navigate his normal route to lectures. The next step was to test with others.

A close up of some of the raised buildings. The burning on the edges due to the laser cutter compared to the white tops helps to make them stand out as 3D shapes.
All of the buildings as they arrived, carefully placed in a box.
A picture of the entire map laid out with all of the newly laser cut buildings in place.