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August 20th, 2020
Campus maps for students with visual impairments open up the higher education experience

CARY, N.C.– Many new college students stress over finding classrooms, residence halls, cafeterias and other campus landmarks. It is even more challenging for students with blindness. That could be changing thanks to a new resource from analytics company SAS. Using SAS®Graphics Accelerator, students with visual impairments or blindness can explore a growing library of maps that already includes 35 college campuses across the United States.

Maps present the real world in small, easy-to-digest pieces to help users travel, explore and learn about an area from the safety of their home. Maps are also used to build concepts such as mental mapping, spatial relationships and other critical orientation-related skills.

SAS, working with Perkins School for the Blind, is bringing these capabilities to people with visual impairments. With SAS Graphics Accelerator, a free browser extension that transforms graphs and charts into sound, users create non-visual digital maps that contain points of interest such as intersections, bus stops, buildings and other landmarks.

Diane Brauner, Manager of Perkins’ Paths to Technology website and an Orientation & Mobility Specialist, uses the maps to prepare students for life on campus.

“I’ve been able to use digital maps like these to acclimate incoming college students to their campus in advance,” said Brauner. “The maps increase the mobility, confidence and safety of students with visual impairments as they navigate their new environments.”

Using a map of Elon University she created using the SAS Graphics Accelerator, Brauner conducted a remote Orientation & Mobility lesson with Victor, an incoming freshman, to help him learn about the North Carolina campus before his arrival.

“It gave me a better mental map,” said Victor. “For instance, I hadn’t grasped how some streets related to each other. Now I understand how campus is laid out, what I need to find and where I’m going.”

Help from the crowd

The Map Repository currently includes maps from schools including Brown University, Carnegie Mellon, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State, Texas Tech, UCLA, University of North Carolina, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, among many others.

SAS plans to crowdsource maps for the hundreds of other colleges and universities around the world, which will be housed on Perkins’ Paths to Technology site and can also be posted on a school’s website or shared with students via email. Campus accessibility resource personnel, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists and other people familiar with the needs of people with visual impairments are encouraged to create and submit maps to the repository – but anyone can contribute.

Enabling insight without sight

The scale of the maps can range from a city block, to a campus, to an entire metropolitan region. Users can pan around the map, zoom in or out, understand the name of nearby points as well as the bearing and distance of each point from the current virtual location.

Students with visual impairments or blindness explore the maps using a “virtual cane” supported by a pair of headphones or earbuds and controlled with a keyboard, joystick or standard gamepad controller.

The campus maps will help high school, college students and campus visitors with visual impairments or blindness to:

  • Navigate a campus efficiently and effectively.
  • Take a virtual tour of campus as they navigate the college selection process.
  • Orient themselves to campus before they arrive for their first semester.
  • Plan new routes of travel at the beginning of each semester.

Communicating distance and location through sound

SAS Graphics Accelerator, a tool for making data visualizations accessible to people with visual impairments, uses sonification to convey distance, direction and orientation. For instance, the relative distance of an object from the user’s virtual location to the end of her virtual cane is indicated using pitch. Nearby objects are indicated using high pitch, while more distant objects are signaled by low pitch. The user can zoom in and out by changing the length of their virtual cane.

The tone for each object is panned between the left and right speakers based on the object’s bearing off due north. Objects that are due north and south from the user’s virtual location are perfectly balanced between the left and right speakers or earbuds and differentiated using synthesized sound. Objects to the north are not synthesized, whereas objects to the south have a slightly metallic sound. Sound coming from the right and left speakers indicate objects that are due east and west, respectively.

In addition to the sonification described above, the user can choose to hear a verbal description of each object. The verbal description can include the label of the object, the distance to the object, and the bearing of the object. For example, the user might hear “bus stop, 100 Campus Rd, 183 yards north” to indicate the location of a bus stop and its side of the street.

The user can quickly move around the map by panning due north, south, east or west. They may also jump to any object they encounter with their virtual cane or search the entire map for an object and then jump to it.

Ed Summers, Director of Accessibility at SAS, led the creation of SAS Graphics Accelerator. “This product was built by the blind for the blind,” said Summers, who is visually impaired. “With the ability to make charts and graphs consumable to people with blindness, geospatial data is a natural application for SAS Graphics Accelerator.”

Applications go well beyond college campuses

Mapping possibilities exist well beyond higher education. In fact, the repository already includes a map of San Francisco tourist attractions, famous lighthouses and Civil War battlefields.

“We started with college campuses to address a common need among young students with blindness,” said Summers. “It’s exciting to consider what the crowd will come up with, whether it’s theme parks, city attractions or walking tours. We’re just getting started.”

About SAS

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SAS and all other SAS Institute Inc. product or service names are registered trademarks or trademarks of SAS Institute Inc. in the USA and other countries. ® indicates USA registration. Other brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies. Copyright © 2020 SAS Institute Inc. All rights reserved.