S. Landau

Touch Graphics, Inc.


This paper will report on progress on an ongoing project to design, fabricate, install and evaluate an interactive three-dimensional touchable model of the National Mall and the museums, monuments and public government buildings that surround it. To be located at the Castle, the original Smithsonian building in Washington, the model will provide multi-sensory information to tourists visiting the nations capital, of which the National Mall is at the very heart.


The National Mall Talking Touch Model is being developed through a collaboration of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Universal Design at the University of Buffalo, the Smithsonian Institution, and Touch Graphics, Inc. Its purpose it to provide general orientation to this important public space, and also to offer detailed way-finding, architectural and historical detail of individual buildings and monuments. The model will be made of cast polymer material that is able to detect which part (or parts) is being touched at any moment by human skin. When a visitor touches a building or other feature, a pre-recorded message will be played that identifies and describes that part. Simultaneously, captioned text and related visual images will be displayed on an associated video monitor. By this means, the exhibit is to be rendered accessible to individuals who are blind, have low vision, or are otherwise print-disabled. We hope that it is also entertaining and informative for members of the general public.


The model will depict the area in the center of the city, from the Lincoln Monument in the West to the Capitol building to the east; and from the White House in the North to the Jefferson Memorial to the south. A new technique for detecting changes in electrical charge on non-conductive parts is being developed to enable touch-sensitivity, and a connected computer will interpret touches and store associated digital content for play back over via the audio and video systems. Considerable research informs the physical design of the model; great effort has been made to ensure that the tactile experience of touching the model will communicate efficiently, effectively and pleasurably to a user who is blind, while also satisfying the general public, which expects a high level of detail and accuracy. An extensive user testing program, including both visually impaired and sighted participants, is planned to evaluate visitor engagement with the display as compared with a traditional non-interactive model or spoken descriptions of the same area.


The overall purpose of the project is to demonstrate how a design ethic that embraces universal access can lead to the creation of durable, inexpensive and esthetically pleasing way-finding and interpretive displays. Through this means we hope to foster inclusivity without sacrificing wide-scale appeal, and to provide an easily-replicated example that shows how to avoid creating special (and stigmatizing) versions of public-access cartographic systems that support audiences with diverse needs.