2 Screenshots of Elon Campus: One is a visual map (Google Maps) and & the other is a non-visual map made from Google Maps data.

Getting Started with Non-Visual Digital Maps

Why does a non-visual map look different than a visual map?

Since I lost my vision, I have not had access to maps. It is true that I get my hands on a good tactile map from time to time. However, those instances are very rare. Sighted people have access to an abundance of maps. They can look at maps in Google Maps or Apple Maps. They can look at the plethora of maps that are embedded on many websites. All those maps are completely 100% unusable for those of us with blindness. Obviously, we can’t see them. I’ve tried to print many of them on my tactile graphics printer. They are completely illegible.

That’s why the accessibility team here at SAS created non-visual digital maps. We call them “non-visual” because they are designed to be explored using non-visual methods. We call them “digital” because they can be accessed in a web browser. As a result, people with blindness can access an infinite number of non-visual digital maps on the world wide web.

Over the past few months, I’ve demonstrated non-visual digital maps to many people with blindness. They “get it” instantly. Several of them are using the technology to expand their mobility and understanding of the physical world.

I’ve also demonstrated non-visual digital maps for many sighted O&M instructors. In general, they don’t “get it”. The purpose of this post is to help sighted O&M instructors learn the benefits of non-visual digital maps so they can incorporate them into their lessons with students and clients.

Non-visual digital maps are designed primarily for auditory interaction

It is easy to forget that people with blindness interact with the world using non-visual methods. That interaction is primarily auditory and tactile. As a result, technologies that are designed for users with blindness are designed primarily for auditory and/or tactile interaction. For example, when you look at braille visually it does not look like normal print. Braille is optimized for tactile interaction.

The same is true for non-visual digital maps. They are primarily designed for auditory interaction. As a result, when you look at a non-visual digital map with your eyes you will not see what you expect to see when looking at a “map”. 

While exploring a non-visual digital map, it is essential that users wear headphones or earbuds. That will enable users to hear the location of objects they encounter within the map. The location of objects is conveyed using 3D spatial sound.

Non-visual digital maps are explored using a virtual cane

When I lost my vision, my O&M instructor taught me how to use a long cane. When I hold my long cane in my hand and extend my arm, the tip of my cane is about four feet in front of me. If I swing the cane in an arc, I can feel the direction and distance of nearby objects relative to my physical location.

Similarly, users explore non-visual digital maps using a “virtual” cane. They can swing their virtual cane clockwise or counter-clockwise. As the cane encounters an object within the map, the user hears the direction and distance of that object relative to their virtual location within the map. Users also hear the name of each object they detect with their virtual cane.

Users can quickly change their virtual location within the map. For example, if a user detects an object of interest, they can press a key on their keyboard to move to the object. Users can also search the entire map for objects of interest and jump directly to any object.

The combination of virtual location and virtual cane enables users to systematically explore a non-visual digital map. While doing so, they build a mental map of the objects and their relative position to each other.

Case Study: Victor and Elon University 

Now you know the basics of non-visual maps. It’s time to look at a case study that shows how a non-visual digital map enabled Victor, a rising freshman at Elon University, to build a mental map of the university’s campus.

Try it yourself 

  1. Install SAS Graphics Accelerator for Google Chrome
  2. Open the non-visual digital map of Elon University
  3. Click the Accelerate button on the map to open it in SAS Graphics Accelerator Map View.
  4. Press Page down to swing the virtual cane clockwise.
  5. Press Page Up to swing the cane counter-clockwise.
  6. Press Enter to jump to the object that is currently indicated by the virtual cane.
  7. Pres H for additional commands.

Learn how to create non-visual digital maps

Now you’re ready to create your own non-visual digital maps and start using them with your students and clients.

Additional Non-Visual Maps Posts

Attached File(s)

By Ed Summers

stick characters sitting facing each other with speech bubbles overhead.

How my guidance counselor helped me as a low vision student

Butterfly life cycle

Butterflies part 2: Butterfly life cycle

Smiling woman sitting on a campus bench studying on her laptop.

Reading Chegg eTextbooks with low vision