50 Milk Street, 19th Floor
Boston, MA 02109
1611 Telegraph Ave, Suite 1550
Oakland, CA 94612
Back in 2003, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute initiated a project to create “on-demand, user-centered tactile maps for blind pedestrians and connoisseurs of the environment”. More than 10 years after the invention of the TMAP (Tactile Map Automated Production), both they and the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired partnered with Raizlabs to breathe new life into the project.
For those with low or no sight, access to information about the streets and paths around their homes or offices is exceptionally useful. Taking steps into a new area requires a high degree of confidence, and is often daunting. One of the primary methodologies to mitigate users’ uncertainty in new areas are braille maps, printed on paper.
Historically, braille maps have been difficult to design, manufacture, and distribute. Not only is there the issue of expense of and access to braille printers, but generating clear maps that contain useful and legible information can be challenging. The original TMAPs, designed by Dr. Joshua A. Miele, illustrated streets around a single point of interest. We needed to improve legibility, clearly and distinctly label streets that touched the bounding box of the map, and ultimately reduce the time required to generate maps by the internal team at LightHouse. Being able to easily and programmatically produce these maps in one click was essential to their team.
Creating useful maps began with large doses of trigonometry, trial, and error. We leveraged the initial work and insights from the first TMAPs and reviewed and refined the approach. This required the team to project a map from a round world onto a flat surface (aka Cartesian plane) and to determine the street orientation—essentially which direction the street is going in the overarching context of each individualized map. We went further by translating braille to fit street names on the page, keeping labels from overlapping, and organizing information in a mnemonic way.
In addition, our team worked closely with the internal map creators at LightHouse to build a screen reader friendly web page to interact with. Both sighted and non-sighted employees are fully capable of creating TMAPs using this internal web tool.
“When a sighted person needs a map, they can get one in seconds, TMAP ensures that same, practical access for the blind and low vision community. Our new web portal will take the hard work that our Media and Accessible Design Lab has put into developing best practices for tactile maps and make rendering tactile data possible for anyone, in a matter of seconds. We couldn’t be more proud to call Raizlabs a partner on this project.”
While the original TMAPs have been used and enjoyed for years, they are still in the nascent stage of mass production and functionality. For now, as a team we agreed to keep it simple, and master the display of major thoroughfares, paved streets, and highways. As we introduced the 2.0 version to the LightHouse community, we’ve received requests for additions like pathways, roundabouts, bodies of water, and so much more.
Future map concepts notwithstanding, when we placed TMAPs into the hands of first time users at a backyard BBQ launch party, each and every person grinned as they spoke about the neighborhoods they were getting a look at for the very first time. When Dr. Miele stood up to give a toast to the team, there was not a dry eye among us. We believe, unequivocally, that the TMAP project and the freedom it brings will alter the way the blind and low vision community will interact with the world around them.
While TMAP 2.0 is currently considered a Beta project, if you are interested in learning more, please reach out to Greg Kehret at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With all of the tweaks and alterations both to the TMAPs and to the website that generates them, we reduced the total time to make and ship a map from 45 minutes to 10 minutes. Now the team at LightHouse can spend more of their time focused on the people who need the maps, and less time on making them.