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iPhone Maps For The Blind, Using Haptic Tech

Moving pins on a perforated screen gives the visually impaired a constantly updated way to navigate the urban environment.

iPhone Maps For The Blind, Using Haptic Tech

Imagine an urban route you know well—extremely well. It’s the kind of comfortable path you walk from your front door to the bus stop five days a week, or the shortcut you follow to your favorite coffee shop. After your first step, it’s like muscle memory kicks in and your body just takes you there without thinking. You feel like could do it with your eyes closed. Could you? Navigation becomes infinitely more complex when sight is no longer an option, and even more so when unknown territory is being explored.

As part of a 36-hour project during an introductory course at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, Andrew Spitz, Ruben van der Vleuten, and Markus Schmeiduch created a concept for Blind Maps, a super-smart smartphone accessory that functions with an interactive, Braille-like interface to help the visually impaired safely find their way.

Though the tactile feedback of haptic technology has been designed into everything from lighting to steering wheels to thermometers, its application in this field has been largely limited to some work on white canes and a (pretty rad) pair of vibrating shoes. The trio behind Blind Maps wanted to address how to use the tech to help augment one’s senses.

Because of the quick, hackathon-style format, there wasn’t much time for the team to do extensive field research. Schmeiduch, however, had previously organized holiday trips for blind tourists in Austria, and they supplemented those insights with exercises that enabled them to begin to understand the experience firsthand—basically, hitting the streets wearing blindfolds. "Everyone should try that—it’s an amazing experience!" Spitz tells Co.Design.

Prototyping and mock-ups quickly followed, resulting in the compact, Bluetooth-enabled attachment. Rather than rely on headphones and voice-activated systems, which largely eliminate the opportunity for users to react to auditory clues from the surrounding environment, this unit is built around a unique perforated screen to be held in the hand. Moving pins sense a user’s location (with help from GPS and Google maps), and are constantly updated—raised and lowered—to mimic how the path unfolds: The length of the guideline shortens as destinations get closer; intersections are marked with a gap; the "view" can be quickly switched from bird’s-eye or simple line.

"Cities are constantly evolving, so it’s important that users can provide feedback on changes," Spitz says of the key decision to incorporate open-sourcing. "Using the GPS and accelerometers on the phone, one could tell how the user is walking and the service could rate the route accordingly. The more people use a given route, the more accurate the ecosystem becomes," he explains. In addition, unexpected obstacles can be immediately reported with the press of a button, giving a more robust, real-time picture of a particular journey.

The most challenging aspect of getting Blind Maps production-ready would be figuring out how to make the moving pins a physical reality. "We could use actuators such as micro-solenoids, or simulate texture with electricity," Spitz says. And while it’s currently just a concept, he hopes to have the opportunity to see it evolve.

(H/t Industrial Design Served)