How to Create 3D Printable Maps Using Touch Mapper

Summary

This blog post will explain how to use Touch Mapper to create maps that can be printed on a 3D printer.

Touch Mapper is a website that enables you to create tactile maps. You can create maps that can be printed on a 3D printer, tactile graphics embosser, or swell paper. This post focuses exclusively on maps that can be 3D printed. It explains how to create and download an STL file that contains a map for a specific address. Loading an STL file into 3D printing software and printing it is beyond the scope of this post.

The maps you create using Touch Mapper may contain buildings, roads, sidewalks, and water features such as streams, rivers, and lakes. The objects represented in a map may vary by location based on the contents of the underlying data source which is Open Street Maps.

Touch Mapper supports many options. This is true for most products. Lots of options means lots of flexibility. However, lots of options also creates complexity which can be overwhelming. For example:

  • How do I choose between all of the options?
  • How can I use the product to solve specific problems?
  • If I use the product to solve a specific problem, what options should I use and how should I use them?

Based on my initial experimentation with Touch Mapper, I think it works well for at least one use case that I’ll discuss in this post. I may include additional use cases in the future.

USE Case: Large scale map of a destination 

Description 

This use case produces a map of a destination such as a building as well as the area immediately surrounding the building. The surrounding area may include roads, intersections, and sidewalks.

Benefits to Map Creator 

This use case requires only a few simple options. You do not need to use any advanced options.

Benefits to pedestrians with visual impairments or blindness

The map may enable pedestrians with VIB to create a mental map of the building and the surrounding area. The mental map can be very helpful if the pedestrian is travelling to the destination for the first time or they need to refresh their memory of the destination.

Pedestrians with VIB may be able to discern the following information from the map:

  • The approximate size and shape of the building.
  • The location of entrances to the building.
  • The location of the building in relation to nearby roads and intersections.
  • The existence of nearby buildings as well as their size and shape.
  • The path of sidewalks that approach the building.
  • The location of sidewalks in relation to adjacent roads and intersections. For example, is there a sidewalk on both sides of Main Street? Note that sidewalks are higher than roads.

Limitations

The biggest limitation of Touch Mapper is that the map does not include any text or labels. As a result, the map has limited value by itself. Therefore, I recommend that the map creator also creates a written description to accompany the map. Together, the map and a thoughtful written description can enable independent exploration by pedestrians with VIB. See guidance below regarding written descriptions.

Step 1: Create the map

  • Go to https://touch-mapper.org/en/.
  • Enter the address of the destination in the text field and click Search.
  • For printing technology, choose 3D printing.
  • For print size, choose the largest size your 3D printer will support. Don’t worry about the price that is listed for each size. It is free to download the map and print it yourself.
  • For map scale, choose 1:1800. See the note below about this item.
  • Do not check hide buildings.
  • Click the Create Tactile Map button. Note that it might take a few minutes for your map to be created.

Note: I recommend the 1:1800 map scale for a few reasons. First, this scale seems to provide enough spacing that it is possible to differentiate features that are close together, e.g. a sidewalk and a road that are parallel to each other. Second, at this scale one inch on the map is equal to 50 yards on earth. That’s a round number that is relatively easy to remember. I also encourage you to teach your students how to estimate distances in using yards because a yard is roughly equal to one step for an adult walking at a normal speed. If you do this, one yard equals one step. Hence, one inch on the map equals 50 steps.

Step 2: Download the STL file

  • After the map is created, click the Download the Map Yourself radio button.
  • Click the Download Printable STL File link. That will initiate the download of the STL file to your browser’s Downloads folder.

Step 3: Print the map

This step is outside the scope of this post. It assumes you have access to a 3D printer and you know how to use 3D printing software. If that is not the case, try to find a local maker space or science teacher that has access. In my experience, most Touch Mapper maps require four to five hours to print. This time may vary widely depending on your 3D printer.

Step 4: Finish the map

Notice the map has no writing on it whatsoever. I recommend that you immediately label the map so you will be able to recall what it shows. If you’re sighted, you can do this by writing on the back of the map. If you’re blind, you can braille the description on a large envelope and store each map in its own envelope. At a minimum, your label should include the address of the destination and the map scale.

Place the printed map on a table in front of you. Notice the map has a raised border on each edge. There should be a raised dot on one corner. That is the Northeast corner of the map. I recommend that you orient the map properly so the North edge of the map actually faces North and you also orient your body so you are facing North. In my experience, this practice reduces confusion.

Notice there is a cone in the center of the map. That cone can be very sharp. I recommend that you use a file to round off the top of the cone to prevent injury.

Finally, write a description of the map for your students. The description must include the name and/or address of the destination building and the map scale. In this case, the map scale should be express in terms the student can easily understand. I also recommend that you use cardinal directions to describe objects in relation to the destination building. 

Here’s an example description:

  • One inch on the map equals 50 yards on earth.
  • The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is in the center of the map. The address is 11 West Jones Street, Raleigh, NC.
  • Jones Street is just to the north of the museum. It runs east-west.
  • Edenton Street is to the south of the museum. It also runs east-west.
  • Salisbury Street is to the west of the museum. It runs north-south. It is a one way street in which traffic flows south.
  • Centennial Plaza is immediately to the east of the museum. It is a pedestrian plaza  that runs north-south between Jones Street and Edenton Street.
  • The main entrance of the museum is on the east side of the museum facing Centennial Plaza.
  • Wilmington Street is on the eastern edge of the map. It runs north-south. It is also a one way street in which traffic flows north.

 

 

Comments

Posted by Diane BraunerMay 15, 2020

Touch Mapper also has options for creating tactile maps that can be printed on your embosser and tactile maps that can be printed on your PIAF machine (swell paper).

Posted by Matt HardingMay 18, 2020

Hi Ed,

I was wondering if you've run into any problems with the maps not having any or many of the buildings. I've tried to use touch mapper for three different locations (two of which were middle schools) and almost all of the buildings were missing. This tool would be so valuable to me if it had more accurate data for my area (Virginia). I'm really loving what 3d printers can do for my students and I can't wait to get my hands on something as accurate as google maps. Thanks so much for the article :)

Matt

Posted by Ed SummersMay 18, 2020

Hi Matt, that is a great question. I have seen omissions and also some objects on maps that do not exist in the real world. I encourage you to ask this question to the creators of touchmapper.org. Please do provide an update here if you learn anything interesting.

 

Best,

Ed