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Unique tactile map made on 3-D printer could have widespread use

For people who are blind or visually impaired or face that possibility in the coming years, the future is almost literally in their hands.

Thanks to a visualization specialist at the University of South Florida in Tampa and his 3-D plastic-printing machine, a unique tactile map may soon be as available as any paper map or smartphone app is for the sighted. The three-dimensional map will allow users to trace the raised features with their fingertips and "see" every doorway and hallway.

Howard Kaplan, a doctoral candidate in the USF Advanced Visualization Center, began looking for a project three years ago for his doctorate degree in biomedical engineering. "I knew some family members and friends who were visually impaired," Kaplan said. "I talked to one friend about the possibility of using a 3-D printer to help navigate the (USF) campus."

Maps marking emergency exits are required by law in pubic buildings, but these are essentially useless to the visually impaired or blind. "I can't imagine navigating without my sight," Kaplan, 39, said. "You kind of take it for granted."

Kaplan said he began exploring what sorts of maps already existed for the visually impaired and found there were some that were embossed on foil or paper or extending a simple topographical map dimensionally. But none had the durability of plastic.

Over months, Kaplan developed a tactile "code" for his 3-D map that could be traced with a finger and understood by a nonsighted person. Knowing Braille wasn't necessary.

Through trial and error, Kaplan learned what worked. "Lots of it was user-tested with visually impaired and blind people. There were no universal symbols for this type of navigation already in place."

So Kaplan had to develop 3-D symbols for walls, paths, doorways and the like and then test them. Some maps would be placed on the wall outside a classroom door to guide students through the space inside. Other maps would be portable, roughly 4 inches by 5 inches, so students could carry them for each assigned classroom or lecture hall.

And all classroom maps have the name in raised letters and in Braille at the top as well as a key to the map's raised bumps and ridges.

Kaplan said his goal is to have all visually impaired USF students provided with his tactile maps and have maps outside major classrooms. And this is just the start. "The research is ongoing. There are many different types of spaces in the world," he said.

Kaplan hopes to develop software that would allow anyone to create a tactile 3-D map for any space. His target is spring 2019.

The potential need is great. More than half a million Floridians have a "prevalence toward visual difficulties," according to 2016 statistics from the American Federation for the Blind. Another 2016 study found that 10 percent of American adults said they had some difficulty seeing, even with prescription glasses.

According to an AARP article, 50,000 Americans go blind each year.

And the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind cites 2013 statistics that more than 59,000 Floridians over 55 were legally blind.

However you read the numbers, there cannot be too many tools to help blind people map out their world.

One of the agencies Kaplan reached out to for suggestions and feedback was Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, where his ideas were met with enthusiasm.

Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind program manager Jennifer Brooks said, "What he's hoping to do with his software and a 3-D printer, anyone could develop a tactile graphic of any community environment which, right now, isn't available across the board.

"Being able to walk in somewhere, like a mall, and 'see' a directory and 'see' the stores you want to go to, this (mapping) could make it a quick, easy and affordable way to provide that same accessibility to those who are visually impaired," she said.

And since timing is everything, Tampa Lighthouse put Kaplan in touch with the VFO Group, a leading provider of hardware and software for the visually impaired with U.S. headquarters in St. Petersburg.

That is until this month, when VFO changed its name to Vispero and moved to a new 15,000-square-foot open space design in Clearwater. Since about 15 percent of its 100 local employees are blind or visually impaired, Kaplan's maps proved invaluable.

In preparation for the change and its challenge to the company's visually impaired, VFO arranged for three tours of the new work space — restrooms and even break rooms included — before the move with collaboration between Kaplan, his 3-D machine and coaches from Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, according to Kathy Austin, 55, global vice president, human resources.

"We picked four or five blind people from our staff ... and gave feedback" on Kaplan's prototypes of the new office space, she said. "After each tour, we'd sit down with him and give detailed feedback and he would go back and make adjustments and come back with a new version," Austin said.

When finished, Kaplan will provide maps for navigating open work areas and portable versions for each visually challenged employee.

The visually impaired employees range in age from their 20s to their 60s, Austin noted.

She recalled watching one blind staffer in his 60s, who had practiced with Kaplan's map and Lighthouse coaches. He was "a little hesitant at first," she said, but on the third test run, "I would never have known he was blind.

"He walked into the (office) space with the confidence that he knew the space thanks to the tactile map."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at