New Maps Speak to the Blind

Talking BART maps? Yes, talking BART maps. The technology to produce BART maps that audibly describe BART stations is just around the corner and the LightHouse is helping to make this happen.

The LightHouse, working with Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, has produced a prototype for the first-ever talking maps that will enable blind or visually impaired people to handily navigate BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) subway stations. Three of the stations are completed, with the other 41 stations on this BART’s 104-mile subway line soon to follow. Muni Metro underground stations are next on the agenda, and the principal designers – who themselves are blind – envision someday bringing similar innovative devices to many sites across the nation and globe.

The talking maps concept was applied to BART by LightHouse staff and Joshua Miele, a scientist at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco. Miele directs technology research and development at Smith-Kettlewell.

“I dreamed of doing this for years,” Miele says. “A blind person at an unfamiliar station doesn’t know to head left or right, how to find a ticket kiosk, where to go up onto the street to hop on a bus. You needed to budget time for getting lost, asking strangers for assistance, or both. Well, my solution was making maps talk. The key to that was the arrival of the Smartpen.”

Miele solved the BART map problem by adapting the capability of a Livescribe Smartpen. The new LightHouse produced flip books with tactile graphics have pages with raised symbols – easily detected with a fingertip – that indicate staircases and escalators, bathrooms and exits, and brief Braille captions. The paper also has a subtle, swirling matrix of printed dots. When a user sweeps a map page with a Smartpen (basically, a slim computer with a tiny camera that can read that pattern) a richly detailed audio commentary on each location, including all nearby landscape features and assets, will pour into the user’s ear.

Miele blended the technologies that resulted in the map project, but to actually create the maps, he relies on staff at the LightHouse. “They’ve been the lynchpin of this whole project,” Miele says. The LightHouse has a Braille production facility at its headquarters office, where the Access to Information Services team will produce and distribute the maps.

To make talking BART maps a reality, considerable information had to be gathered. Each station required a detailed study to decide what features to represent. LightHouse Board member Chris Downey, a blind architect, called in colleagues from major architectural firms, like HOK and Gensler, and other members of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) to help. Volunteer teams fanned out across the subway system. Downey says necessary data not only streamed into the LightHouse, but flowed back in the other direction. Participating architects grew much more cognizant of how blind and disabled people experience space – which can influence and improve their future designs.

“It’s the first time a project like this has been accomplished anywhere,” says Miele. “But it won’t be the last. This sort of tool can be used everywhere, airports, bus and train stations, malls, schools, libraries, national parks, even your governor’s office.”

It is estimated that the first talking BART maps will get into riders’ hands by Fall 2013. For more information, please contact Greg Kehret, Director of Access to Information Services, at 415-694-7349 or

2 thoughts on “New Maps Speak to the Blind”

Comments are closed.