Getting around unfamiliar public spaces can be tough even with all your senses, but if you can't see where you're going it's downright intimidating. A new multi-sensory model promises a brighter future, though, with 3D maps that give spoken directions and building information when touched. The technology comes courtesy of a collaboration between tactile-graphics company Touch Graphics and the University of Buffalo's Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), and while it was designed specifically to help visually-impaired people, it's also meant to show off the potential of tangible touch interfaces.

The technology has so far been deployed in three installations, the latest of which is at Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Conductive paint on the miniature buildings allows the system to sense pressure from a visitor's fingers, sending signals through thin wires to sensors housed in the pedestal.

A computer then announces building names and offers directions as you interact with it, adding more information as you hold your finger in place, and for the benefit of sighted people the building name and a spotlight from an overhead video projector illuminates it. This projector can be configured to project matching satellite imagery, custom images, or a variety of visual effects.

It has sound effects, too, to help you gain your bearings as you get around the real place. Fountains gurgle. Bells chime. And a three-button menu system helps you quickly get to grips with both the layout and names of places on the map.

An upcoming model set for installation at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia will further improve the system with a video screen illuminating the miniature buildings from below, while an earlier prototype included a floor plan for the two-story Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind that swapped miniature buildings for raised lines and textured surfaces. There's also a prototype at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts.

All of the maps omit superfluous information, with the designers striving to focus only on the details that are relevant for wayfinding and orientation, and they are oriented horizontally rather than vertically – as at many museums and shopping malls – so that it is easier for people to experience the miniature world through their eyes/ears and fingers in much the same manner as they do walking in the real world.

The talking maps are made from 3D-printed buildings and landscapes that are assembled into a single model (Photo: University of Buffalo IDeA Center)

For blind people, especially, this could be a huge deal. "The touch-responsive models solve the ‘last mile’ problem for blind pedestrians, who can often navigate to a building or campus address using GPS, but then need help to get to the classroom building or doctor’s office where they need to be" explains Touch Graphics president Steve Landau.

The designers also note that touch-sensitive 3D talking maps might be just the beginning as the Internet of Things rises on the back of tablet computing and 3D printing. "We may see sculptures, steering wheels, and exercise equipment controlled through touch and gesture," they write. And flat, non-tactile screens may become less and less common.

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