This project seeks to test the feasibility of commercial development of a computer-controlled, interactive tactile map and wayfinding system to enhance the accessibility for visually impaired individuals, of office buildings and other public accommodations. The original scope of the project as a system to indicate the locations of and safe routes to a small set of building features, such as exits restrooms and telephones, has expanded. The system will now allow the user to plan a route to any room or utility feature in a building. Although the system being tested will primarily be for use by persons who are blind or partially sighted, it will also provide useful wayfinding information for the normally-sighted population.

Finding one's way about in an unfamiliar environment can be a difficult task. It can be especially difficult for a person who is blind or partially sighted traveling independently, and increasingly so in an unfamiliar environment. The first-time visitor to a building may want to find information about what is available in the building and information about how to get to a chosen goal. Able-sighted people can get this information from visual maps and building directories. For blind or partially sighted people, this information needs both to be presented in an accessible form and also be relevant to the particular needs of the traveler. Currently there are no such systems. The current project, funded first by a $100,000 Small Business Technology Transfer Research grant and more recently by a $675,000 regular (RO1) project grant from the National Eye Institute, is performing research to meet this need.

Wayfinding may be defined as the ability, both cognitive and behavioral, to find the way to a destination. It is a form of spatial problem solving that involves identifying a current location, then following a route, and finally reaching and identifying a goal. Wayfinding is a complex task for able-sighted people, and poses additional challenges for people who are blind or partially sighted.

A particularly difficult task for the blind or partially sighted traveler is wayfinding in a new or unfamiliar environment. This is both because of wayfinding challenges while following a route and also because of the lack of access to information for route planning. There is a cultural and educational tradition of maps and signs for able-sighted travelers, but the vast majority of building spaces in the world have not made these accessible to blind or partially sighted travelers.

The project has recently conducted a study to compare two designs of tactile maps installed as part of the Lighthouse renovations. The study has generated several results: it has lead to the development of prerecorded teaching instructions to use the current maps, which can be applied to the evolving map interface; derived feedback for the design of the tactile component of the system; served as a spring board for ideas from blind participants about the information desired for wayfinding and format for displaying this information; and it has tested objective and subjective measures for future wayfinding interface evaluation methodology.

Most recently, a study was completed to test the effectiveness of the interactive map system for totally blind individuals (Arditi et al., in press). An experiment was conducted in which wayfinding performed of blind participants was compared after planning routes with either the interactive tactile map or mock "bystander" directions. A questionnaire assessing the perceived usefulness of such a system was also administered. The results indicated great promise for the interactive map system in that there were significantly fewer wayfinding errors, and significantly more errorless wayfinding trials in the interactive map condition than in the bystander condition. Also participant ratings of usefulness and ease of use of the interactive map average 5.59 on a 1-7 Likert scale. The study indicates that interactive tactile maps may provide an effective intervention for increasing access of blind persons in building interiors.

Our research in wayfinding is now taking a new direction. We are setting aside our plans to develop a commercial wayfinding system, and are focusing instead on more basic issues underlying wayfinding performance. For example, what are the sensory requirements for developing a "cognitive map" of an environment? How much vision is required to learn the location of landmarks? Does accuracy suffer when visual images are degraded, and if so, which visual parameters are important for accurate location? What is the role of eye movements in visual wayfinding? One recently completed study (Hall and Arditi, 2000) investigated the potential use of full-field flicker as a means of coding information about the environment to people who are blind to pattern but can still sense light levels in one or both eyes. The results were promising, but enormous practical obstacles still remain before such a device could become a reality. We are also exploring the possible development of a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) based wayfinding aid, in collaboration with Prof. Klaus Mueller (State University of New York Department of Computer Science).

Further Reading

Arditi, A., & Brabyn, J. (2000). Signage and wayfinding. In B. Silverstone, MA Lange, B. Rosenthal, & E. Faye (Eds.), The Lighthouse handbooks on vision impairment and rehabilitation, Vol. I. (pp. 637-650). New York: Oxford University Press.

Arditi, A., Holmes, E., Reedijk, P., & Whitehouse, R. (1997). Universal wayfinding system for building interiors. Technology and persons with disabilities: Proceedings of the twelfth Annual International Conference on Technology for People with Disabilities. Northridge, CA: California State University at Northridge.

Arditi, A., Holmes, E., Reedijk, P., & Whitehouse, R. (1999). Interactive tactile maps, visual disability, and accessibility of building interiors. Visual Impairment Research, 1, 11-21.

Hall, E., & Arditi, A. (2000). Temporal frequency processing in very low vision. Visual Impairment Research, 2(1), 43-48.

Holmes, E., & Arditi, A. (1996). Paths or walls? Designing tactile maps of building interiors. Needs, solutions, developments: Proceedings of the fifth international conference on maps and diagrams for visually impaired people. Ljublijana, Slovenia: Institute of Geodesy, Cartography and Photogrametry.

Holmes, E., & Arditi, A. (1997). Tactile maps of building interiors for blind persons: Architectural vs. path information for route planning. New York: Arlene R. Gordon Research Institute, The Lighthouse Inc. (Technical Report).

Holmes, E., & Arditi, A. (1998). Architectural vs. path information for route planning using tactile maps of building interiors. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 92, 531-534.

Holmes, E., & Jansson, G. (1997). A touch tablet enhanced with synthetic speech as a display for blind people's reading of virtual maps. Technology and persons with disabilities: Proceedings of the twelfth annual international conference on technology for people with disabilities. Northridge CA: California State University at Northridge.



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