Seven years after waking up without sight, San Francisco-based architect Chris Downey is helping to revolutionize the built environment with interactive technologies optimized for the blind. One of the world's leading blind architects, Downey intrinsically understands the issues facing blind and visually impaired people worldwide. As a consultant to a variety of organizations serving to advance universal access, Downey has played an integral role in the development and integration of new, non-invasive technologies designed to assist the blind.
In a recent article in Dwell, Downey illustrates the various technologies currently being tested and implemented in San Francisco - a city notorious for its topographical challenges to differently abled residents. See four takeaways from Dwell's interview with Downey on how technology can help bridge the gap between architecture and universal access after the break.
1. Instead of developing new technologies at a high cost, embrace existing tools and capitalize on their potential. The addition of specialized capabilities to commonplace technology can transform a simple device into a multi-tool for a blind person.
"The most promising interior wayfinding [tool], in my opinion, is beacon technology, which uses low-energy Bluetooth [signals] to send location information and notifications to a smartphone. The device is about the size of a watch face, has a four-year power supply, and has no infrastructure to be integrated into the architecture."
2. Integrating the sense of touch into digital sketchpads could revolutionize how blind architects carry out their work.
"With embossing printers and techniques for tactile drawing, architectural drawings can be accessed through touch. I’m now collaborating with the developers of the inTACT Sketchpad, which enables someone to draw on a tablet and feel the raised line that forms as the stylus passes over the surface. The graphic information can then be uploaded to the computer through a USB connection."
3. Sound, as important as touch, can be refined and applied to design, using acoustic modeling technology, to provide context and direction to the blind.
"The acoustic modeling technology developed and used by Arup’s acoustic engineers in their SoundLab is important for the blind and visually impaired, who listen to space to recognize where they are and what they’re looking for."
4. But architects shouldn’t rely solely on technology when it comes to designing for the blind, as multisensory information is equally as important.
"There needs to be enough multisensory information, in the form of environmental landmarks and cues, that can be related spatially back to the directional information provided through that wayfinding technology. Architects still need to be better multisensory placemakers to design and create effective environments for the blind and visually impaired—which, in turn, will make those spaces more effective and enjoyable for all."