1998 Conference Proceedings

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Michael J. Hudson

Since the mid 1970's Michigan State University (MSU) has provided a tactile map of the approximately 5,000 acre campus in East Lansing. The map, designed to help blind students, faculty, staff, and visitors orient themselves to the campus is of special interest to newcomers. Using the traditional tactile maps (produced on plastic sheets and marked in Braille words and numbers) a student could begin the complex job of exploring the large campus before actually walking the grounds. The original tactile map was designed in a 3 by 4 matrix resulting in 12 map sections. Each of these 12-sections, 2'x2' in size, was bound in a plastic ring binder with an accompanying Braille index listing the names for each of the Braille numbered buildings. The user could thereby either find a location on the tactile map and cross reference it to a name in the index or locate a building of interest in the index and search for its corresponding number on the tactile map.

Use of the tactile map diminished in recent years for several reasons: 1) It was outdated. Having been produced in the 1970s, many current features are not shown and some features on the map no longer exist. 2) It was unwieldy. The binder was heavy and a large table was needed for use. 3) Too many details were displayed. The numerous features and textures may have looked visually attractive but proved tactilely confusing. 4) There was no overview of campus. The 12 pages required frequent page turning. 5) There was neither adequate visual contrast nor any visual text for users with low vision. The plastic sheets on which the map was produced had ample tactile clues but were unsuited to superimposition of print images. 6) Searching the map was difficult. The need to flip between the various map pages and the Braille index led to confusion and frustration.

Recognizing the absence of a contemporary accessible campus map, the author identified such a product as a long-term goal. The new map would seek to eliminate the problems of the older version.


As the author had neither cartographic experience nor time to implement such an involved project single-handedly, effective collaboration with other campus units and students was critical (see list of personnel in Table 1). Through the efforts of a graduate student in the Department of Counseling Educational Psychology & Special Education, the author contacted Dr. Judy Olson of the MSU Geography Department. After learning of the full scope of the project and likely impact on students, Dr. Olson quickly assimilated the research of current tactile mapping techniques into the GEO 823 Map Automation course. The class of 6 graduate students received a presentation from the author and Dr. Olson regarding the existing map, desired outcomes for a new map, and technologies that would make the project possible. As a major assignment for the semester, the students took on the initial planning and first draft of the map.

The students began by researching the work of other tactile cartographers and developing tactile symbols and specifications that might work for MSU. The class presented trial symbols and various ideas to the team. The author and several blind/visually impaired students became involved in determining which of the suggested tactile symbols could be easily discerned from others. These symbols would later represent map features such as rivers, railroads, forests, roadways and other landmarks.

At this early stage, Michael Hudson, Judy Olson, Ellen White, and Tom Hwang collaborated on a funding proposal to both the Associate Provost for Computing and Technology and the Assistant Provost for Student Academic Support. They explained the background and history of the existing map; outlined the costs and benefits of a new version, including the positive impact on visually impaired students, faculty/staff and visitors; and defined the benefits and knowledge to be gained via the cross-departmental effort. Without the collaboration and combined efforts of the three departments it is unlikely that this project would have been either funded or come to fruition.


Despite the professional and student time dedicated to this project at no cost, the budget for labor/supervision still represented more than 50 percent of the entire cost of the project. In an approved budget of nearly $13,000 approximately $7,000 was dedicated to a combination of geography graduate assistant working time and supervisory time for that graduate assistant. The remaining approximately $6,000 was used for equipment acquisition as follows:

Since much of the required equipment (drawing/mapping software, PC's, and copiers) was already in place on campus, the project cost remained modest. Given current equipment pricing, the project could now be undertaken at a lower price with current discounts on some of the specialized equipment. Venders, updated descriptions, and current prices are displayed in Table 2. Fortunately, when the MSU project was begun, the Tactile Image Enhancer was new and initially priced at a lower introductory level. The Nomad tablets, however, were being marketed at a premium by today's standards.

Design Concepts

The first step in the mapping process was a plan for tactilely representing the campus. The developers agreed that the prior map's approach of immediately dividing the map into numerous sections represented a major problem as users sought an overview of the entire campus in one page. With this demand in mind, the challenge became providing a tactile representation of a 5,000 acre campus within the Nomad's A3 (12"x18") workspace. Fitting the entire campus on one A3 page meant that only the most important and largest campus attributes would be included on the overview. These attributes include: major roadways, all academic and business buildings, forests, rivers, and railroads. Some crowding and minor variations in scale were necessary to include all important features on the overview map. Recognizing the importance of campus and public transportation for targeted users of the map, the developers wanted to include major bus stops but this proved unfeasible. To accommodate the display of smaller-size features (such as bus stops and emergency phones), the overview map was quartered and each quarter enlarged to the A3 size. The quadrants also provided much better scaling and inter-object spacing.

Symbol Selection

After determining the content of the maps, a careful selection of symbols to represent various map features was undertaken. The GEO 823 research combined with user feedback aided in the selection of symbols that were easily differentiated tactilely. These symbols represented such items as forests, railroads, rivers, bus stops, and emergency phones. The actual shapes of buildings were used to provide tactile representation of their look on an aerial view. Roadways took the form of continuous lines with curves, median strips, traffic circles, and intersections. On quadrant views an effort was made to display major building entrances with curved notches. In direct contrast to the old version, the new maps maintain a high level of non-raised area. This non-raised baseline means that any raised feature is easily recognized. On the old version, the entire map was textured including grassy areas, parking lots, and forested areas, providing little tactile contrast.

As part of the design of the maps, an orientation bar, a Braille map name, a credit mark, and an index mark were placed at the top of each sheet. These markings give blind users a method of quickly orienting the map (several long horizontal lines indicate that side is up), for identifying which of 5 pages they are using, and (once on the Nomad) hearing the "Credits" (those involved in the project) and "Index" (a listing of the features included on the map).

Map Production

All map production was completed using the Cartography Center in the Department of Geography. Map design/layout was simplified by the use of Aldus [now Macromedia] FreeHand, the same CAD software used throughout the Center and in classes. As lab staff was engaged in producing various print versions of the campus map, the map database was readily available. Using the CAD software, a virtual workspace was defined with appropriate scaling for the A3 paper used with the Nomad. The Cartographers simply extracted needed features for the tactile map from the wide range of elements available in the database.

Once the appropriate elements were added to the virtual map the first rendition was printed on ordinary paper. Using a standard large format copier, this visual product was then copied to the A3 Flexipaper. The Flexi-paper was then passed through the Repro-Tronics Tactile Image Enhancer (TIE). TIE employs a light source which causes any dark, carbon-covered area (the copied image)to be heated enough to burst the micro-capsules in that area, which results in a raised image. The non-image area reflects too much light to be heated sufficiently for the capsules to burst. The result is a raised image of exactly what was copied onto the sheet.

The prototype map was shared with a number of possible users who critiqued its usability. Upon collecting feedback, changes were made and the cycle repeated until all major concerns were addressed. This production cycle was exercised first for the overview map and then for each of the four quadrants.

The Nomad

The Nomad is an electronic tablet equipped with a built-in speech synthesizer. This electronic tablet connects to a personal computer via a serial connection. Special software enables the speech system in the Nomad and allows the computer to receive coordinates from the tablet. Whenever the tablet is touched by the user of the map, the computer receives a set of coordinates from the tablet which are compared against a database of stored features. When a coordinate matching a feature's preprogrammed position in the database is received, the computer sends a preprogrammed text string to the Nomad for voicing. This technology eliminates the need for Braille markings on the map and for the separate index. Removing the large (approximately 24pt) Braille from the map means that the extra space can be used to represent additional map content. The Nomad system of touching a map feature and hearing the name spoken also eliminates much of the confusion of which label goes with which image. Although not presently implemented in the MSU project, the Nomad also allows the programming of various sounds which are then associated with map features. Thus, rather than having the name of the railroad spoken, the designer could actually have the sound of a train played when the railroad symbol is touched. One outstanding feature of the Nomad software that was implemented in the campus map is the ability to store multiple layers of information for each map item. Thus, when pressing a particular building and hearing the name, the user may also hear a beep indicating the presence of more information (e.g., office hours, phone number, or even specifics on how best to approach and enter the building). Yet another powerful feature allows the user to quickly locate a desired element on the map. In this case, the user types the name of the desired location using the computer keyboard and the Nomad instructs the user to move up, down, left or right until the point of interest is found.

To use the Nomad with the campus map, the database had to be created. Graduate students specializing in Orientation and Mobility learned to program the Nomad and entered the information.


Collaboration and the use of new technology resulted in a viable, upto-date product for MSU. The map sheets themselves are highly portable and much less cluttered than the older collection of sheets they replaced. The use of the Tactile Image Enhancer combined with modern CAD software enabled a streamlined production process. Finally, the Nomad makes using the map simple and enjoyable.

Table 1

Project Personnel

The following people, listed in alphabetical order, were instrumental in creating the updated MSU tactile map.

Michael Hudson
e-mail: mjh@pilot.msu.edu Office of Programs for Handicapper Students
Karla Hudson-Student map reviewer
Mary Tregoning-Student map reviewer

Dr. Tom Hwang
e-mail: tomhwang@pilot.msu.edu- Dept. of Counseling Educational Psychology and Special Education
Vicki Chapman-Graduate Assistant
Eric Shaw-Graduate Assistant

Dr. Judy Olson
e-mail: olsonj@pilot.msu.edu
Students in Geo 823: Lauren Anderson
Nathaniel Evans
Catherine Mey
Jan Murray
Christopher Steere
Michael Youngs
Ellen White e-mail: whitee@pilot.msu.edu Department of Geography

Table 2

Specialized Equipment and Producer List
For Tactile Map Production
American Printing House for the Blind (APH)

1839 Frankfort Ave.
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, KY 40206-0085
Phone: 800-223-1839

Nomad and Nomad Gold tablets:

MSU project employed Nomad Gold (no longer sold through APH).
Nomad (available in limited quantities) $775
Quantum Technology
e-mail: quant@quantech.com.au

Producer of Nomad tablets in Australia and continuing source after APH supplies are diminished.

75 Karver Ave.
Westwood NJ 07675
Phone: 800-948-8453
Tactile Image Enhancer $995

Flexi-Paper size A3 100 sheet quantity $2.03 per sheet A3 size is perfect for the Nomad above

Tactile Audio Graphics
Alternative to Nomad

Presently available in 8.5"x11" tablet size only $575

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