The Joseph Kohn Training Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a state-funded facility that teaches vocational skills to the blind and visually impaired. Old wooden maps help students navigate the halls: They are about two feet tall by three feet wide, with braille labels and hand-cut pieces crudely glued on to indicate rooms, stairs, and other building amenities.

They’re usually only hung on the walls of the three-story building when new students need to familiarize themselves with the floor plan. “Students have to memorize everything, because they can’t carry the map with them,” says Howon Lee, a mechanical engineer at Rutgers University.

But that’s finally changing. Beginning last summer, Lee and his student Jason Kim decided to give the maps a much-needed upgrade—using 3D printing.

The technology has helped architects dream up incredible structures, inspired urban planners, and even helped refugees rebuild lost landmarks. So why couldn’t it become a tool for the blind and visually impaired, who make up an estimated 285 million people globally?

Using the university’s 3D printers and modeling software, Lee and Kim recreated the maps—with some changes. The wood was replaced with durable plastic. Each floor is now mapped separately, the stack kept together with binder rings. And they’ve designed the whole thing to be the size of a small tablet, so students can carry it with them. There’s still enough space to include all the essentials, Lee notes: The map outlines all the rooms, and there’s a legend with different shapes representing bathrooms (a circle for the men’s room and a triangle for the women’s), elevators (squares), and stairways (multiple lines).

Howon Lee / CityLab

Tactile maps aren’t new. Through sounds and textures, scientists and architects have come up with a slew of designs to guide the visually impaired through transit, buildings, and even a lesson on the history of evolution. Such maps often use embossing printers to put texture onto a piece of paper. And while Lee’s and Kim’s project is certainly not the first 3D-printed map, engineers and designers are just starting to explore how the technology can applied to the needs of the blind community.

In 2014, Japanese developers created software that allows people to download geospatial data and print out low-cost maps that can clearly differentiate highways, walkways, and railways. The creators now plan to use 3D-printer-friendly designs to outline uneven surfaces and hills to make the maps more helpful during weather-related evacuations. And just last year, students at the University of Central Missouri spent a month making a 3D map of their campus. At the suggestion of a fellow student, who is blind, buildings were kept at a uniform height so users can feel large areas at once. Doorways are marked with stars, and grid lines help users estimate the distance between points.

Undergraduate Jason Kim and mechanical
engineer Howon Lee with their 3D-printed map
for the students of Joseph Kohn Training Center.
(Cameron Bowman / Rutgers University /CityLab)

“The strength of 3D printing is to be able to print any features you want,” Lee says. “You create your three-dimensional model [on the computer], send this data to the printer, and you can [carry] the 3D object with you.”

Portability, speed, and durability are just three advantages of 3D printing. Lee says that technology’s versatility is also a big plus. He and Kim are working to find low-cost ways to scale their mapping project so that every student at the training center can have his or her own set. In the long term, however, Lee hopes to develop such a map for entire cities.

One thing about cities is that they are constantly changing. “There are new buildings and new construction everywhere,” he tells CityLab. “With 3D printers, you can easily change your designs on the computer. Everything is digital.”

What might a city map look like in 3D? One of the key goals of any map is to help users differentiate between buildings and transit hubs, railways and roadways, water and land. Using open data from Open Street Map, one Finland-based designer, Samuli Kärkkäinen, has started working on that. The application, Touch Mapper, allows users to put in any address to generate customized tactile maps of a neighborhood. The program has a variety of different symbols and textures to represent different features, according to

Varied heights and textures differentiate the different topography; most bodies of water are represented by wavy surfaces, while smaller streams are just narrow lines. Pedestrian roads are raised higher than other roads, as the visually impaired utilize them more frequently. The user’s selected address is marked as a raised cone, and the map’s northeast corner is specially marked to ensure proper orientation.

But engineers haven’t got 3D maps all figured out yet. For one thing, cities are huge, and full of small details. There has to be room for compromise, Lee says. He plans a map of Brunswick that will likely highlight major buildings like city hall and transit points like bus stops and subways, with different textures and shapes representing different features. “It's all about how much detail you want to put on it,” Lee says. “Obviously you don’t want to carry a very big map with you … because that’s not practical.”

So while the sighted community have turned to smartphones and GPS, engineers and scientists are just beginning to mine the potential of physical maps. And with some technological advancements, low-tech maps may serve the needs of some communities perfectly, and not be obsolete after all.

This article appears courtesy of CityLab.