Tracktile is a design concept developed for visually impaired and blind people. It is based on electronically augmented, custom-made tactile maps which allow their users to familiarise themselves with unknown surroundings in advance, e.g. when preparing for a holiday in an unknown city and to navigate them more easily and autonomously.
While basic information such as the layout of a city’s street grid or the location of buildings on a university campus can be touched and felt, users can activate additional audio layers with information relevant to them, such as street names, public transportation stops, sights, restaurants, hospitals and doctors, etc.
The maps can also access content created by the users themselves, such as location reviews, descriptions and field recordings made while travelling. These features extend beyond mere utility and transform tracktile maps into playful, interactive souvenirs, which can be used to relive special memories and to share them with family members and friends.
Tracktile was designed and developed by three interface design students at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences in response to a briefing on inclusive design & technologies issued by Microsoft Research. The project was supervised by Prof. Boris Müller. It was selected by Microsoft to be presented at the 2015 Design Expo held from July 27th – 31st in Redmond, Washington – together with the projects developed at seven other design universities from all over the world.
Until then, we will keep working on Tracktile, and this site will be updated to reflect further developments.
For further information on our research process, our feedback sessions and prototype iterations, please refer to our in-depth documentation.
Blind and visually impaired people face a number of challenges when travelling and trying to orientate themselves in unfamiliar spaces:
- They can’t use visual cues like direction signs. Instead, they must rely on their sense of hearing, assistive equipment, such as blindman’s sticks, or help from others.
- They can’t prepare themselves in the same way that sighted people can. This is especially problematic, as many blind and visually impaired people learn to memorise spatial layouts, distances and routes. When navigating familiar surroundings, these memories are a very useful tool. However, familiarising themselves in advance with the layout of a city they’ve never visited before and the spatial relations between locations is quite challenging without visual maps.
- They fear getting lost. Blind and visually impaired people need to know where they are and how they can get back to where they came from. Getting lost when travelling alone and not being able to find help is a major concern for them, as is a general feeling of safety when walking around strange and unfamiliar cities.
While these problems had to be addressed if our idea was to have true merit for the visually impaired, it was very important to us to not just create another assistive device perfectly suited to one specific type of disability. Instead, we tried to develop something that would be more than useful, something that would be open enough to leave space for exploration, play, sharing and poetry, something that could be enjoyed by everyone.
In order to do that we took a closer look at the tools people use to store memories they want to preserve. As we found out, blind and visually impaired people use the same tools as everyone else. Those who still have some remaining eyesight love digital photography, as it enables them to look at the images from very close distances and to make out details they can’t perceive otherwise. Souvenirs and memorabilia are also helpful, as they can’t just be looked at, but touched, handled, felt, smelled and sometimes even tasted. Unsurprisingly, sound plays an important role as well, and quite a few blind and visually impaired people use sound recordings and videos to remind themselves of special events and experiences.
This is how Tracktile works:
- Maps can be ordered online and will be custom-made (3D-printed or milled for stationary maps, printed using swell paper for mobile maps) for the location specified by the user.
- The user can familiarise herself with the layout of the city, learn the names of the most important streets, memorise routes from her hotel to the sights she wants to visit and access community content such as reviews, suggestions and tips.
- When on the move, the user can take the map with her and use it to navigate the city.
- She can also use our app to make audio recordings, which can be shared with the community or kept private.
- These recordings can later be accessed by touching the spots where they were recorded on the map.