Just a few weeks ago, the one-man project Touch Mapper opened its digital doors to the public. What does Touch Mapper have to offer? Customized 3D tactile maps, hot off the press.
The man behind the map is Finnish programmer Samuli Kärkkäinen. In an interview, Kärkkäinen tells us how he came up with the idea for Touch Mapper, the potential he sees in the project, and what kind of stuff Finland’s public libraries have lying around.
Samuli, your website touch-mapper.org has been online for about one month. What are the reactions so far?
Touch Mapper has been received very enthusiastically by everybody. The 3D printing community has been the quickest to react, with most of the initial visitors arriving through a Reddit post (https://www.reddit.com/r/3Dprinting/comments/3ta3e3/finished_my_first_3dprinting_project_tactile_map/).
However, the audience that really matters is the visually impaired. I’m happy to say that they, and the professionals working in the area, have also been the ones to express the most excitement. Although the relevant media is only now starting to write about Touch Mapper, I’m confident the service will eventually be widely known. Hearing, for instance, a teacher of the visually impaired comment, „I showed Touch Mapper to our orientation and mobility specialists, and they went crazy“ is really rewarding.
What gave you the idea for Touch Mapper? Do you have a special connection to the topic “blindness”? And how many maps have been created so far?
I got the idea for Touch Mapper when I was on vacation with my girlfriend, who is blind. When we went out, say to a restaurant, I wanted to explain to her where the restaurant is located, but I soon discovered words alone simply don’t suffice. A tactile map of some sort is needed. I already knew that OpenStreetMap had the needed data freely available, so it was just a matter of turning that into a tactile map. To my surprise there were no existing solutions, so I set out to create one.
I settled on using 3D printing in part because public libraries near me have 3D printers that everybody can use for free. I had the first prototype map printed in a week or so. When I saw how enthusiastically my girlfriend studied it, I knew I need to finish the project and make it easy for all visually impaired people to create affordable tactile maps for areas that are important for them.
Only a few dozen maps have been ordered so far. How many people have printed them on their own I don’t know, but probably more.
Nowadays everybody is walking around with a navigational device. There are quite a number of satisfying solutions for VIPs. Where do you see the most potential for a tactile map?
A tactile map works very well together with mobile device-based GPS software. The unique benefit of a tactile map is that it gives a VIP an overview of an area. It’s hard to understand shapes and locations of roads and buildings by any other means. For example, a road starting from our home slowly turns 90 degrees. Even though my girlfriend is skilled at moving around independently, she hadn’t realized this, and so her internal map was quite confused. Only after we created a tactile map for the area was she able to form an accurate internal map about the routes that she had been using.
Previously, tactile maps have been too expensive for people to get one about their own neighborhood. Touch Mapper’s low cost changes this completely, making it possible for most people to get a tactile map for locations important to them. In addition to the practical benefits, a VIP will likely enjoy gaining a better understanding about the geography around them the same way sighted people enjoy studying maps.
You live in the Tapiola neighborhood of Espoo, Finland. If I were to create a map of your town, what would I feel?
Touch Mapper’s normal 17 cm tactile map is a square that covers about 500 meters. The most important features are roads, shown as lines elevated from the base. Pedestrian roads are the most interesting for a VIP, so they are elevated more than other roads. A line’s width depends on the road’s width in the real world, and even the smallest ones are included.
Buildings have a flat top, and are just high enough that they don’t get confused with roads. This makes it easy to recognize them as buildings, and to fit your fingertip between them when there is only a narrow gap in between.
I live in a moderately dense suburb. A medium-sized street spans the map, with sidewalks on either side. There are four pedestrian crossings, shown as lines crossing the less elevated line indicating the street. A tunnel under the street is shown as a line that stops just before the street and continues on the other side.
There are about 50 buildings on the map, and roughly the same number of intersections of small roads.
In the middle of the map there is a cone that indicates the selected address. In this case it is on top of the building I live in. The northeast corner of the map is marked to enable correct orientation of the map.
Railways would be shown like roads, and water as a wavy surface, but there is neither in this area.