Developing Auditory Maps for the Blind

Caitlin Dempsey


Human beings navigate through their environment by developing a mental understanding of spatial relationships known as a spatial cognitive maps.  Spatial cognitive maps for most people involves using visual information to development an understanding of the spatial relationship between the person and other objects.  For those that are blind or have severe visual impairments, other senses such as hearing, are used to collect information in order to build a spatial cognitive map.  So how can auditory maps for the blind with navigation?

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Chile have developed software that uses auditory signals to help build a map of an environment to help the blind navigate.  The virtual environment software is known as Audio-based Environment Simulator (AbES) and uses audio based cues to help users collect spatial information about a building’s layout.

Audio-based Environment Simulator (AbES): Helping to Create Auditory Maps for the Blind

The aim of AbES is to provide a video game like application to improve real world navigation skills and general spatial awareness in the blind.  The study, Development of an Audio-based Virtual Gaming Environment to Assist with Navigation Skills in the Blind, was published in the March 2013 Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE).  The authors concluded:

We demonstrate that interacting with AbES provides accurate cues that describe the spatial relationships between objects and the overall layout of the target environment. Blind users can generate accurate spatial cognitive maps based on this auditory information and by interacting with the immersive virtual environment. Furthermore, interacting with AbES within the context of a game metaphor demonstrates that spatial cognitive constructs can be learned implicitly and rather simply through causal interaction with the software. As demonstrated in this initial phase of the study, the interactive and immersive nature of the game can improve the individual’s spatial awareness of a new environment, provide a platform for creating an accurate spatial cognitive map, and may reduce the insecurity associated with independent navigation prior to arriving at an unfamiliar building.

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Navigation Technology and Maps for the Blind

Back in 2009, Researchers at the University of Bristol developed a helmet that used auditory clues to help blind navigate by converting imagery captured of objects such as trees, people, and furniture to sound.  See also: navigation and maps for the blind.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.