Apple wants to make its Maps app more accessible for visually impaired users

Apple wants to make its Maps app more accessible for visually impaired users. The tech giant has applied for a patent (number 10,330,490) for “touch-based exploration of maps for screen reader users.”

Per the patent, an electronic device can provide an interactive map with non-visual output, thereby making the map accessible to visually impaired users. The map can be based on a starting location defined based on a current location of the electronic device or on a location entered by the user. 

Nearby paths, nearby points of interest, or directions from the starting location to an ending location can be identified via audio output. Users can touch a screen of the electronic device in order to virtually explore a neighborhood. 

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A user can be alerted when he is moving along or straying from a path, approaching an intersection or point of interest, or changing terrains. Apple says this allows the user to familiarize himself or herself with city-level spatial relationships without needing to physically explore unfamiliar surroundings.

In the patent filing, Apple notes that maps allow users to understand and adjust to unfamiliar areas. For example, a map that visually depicts roads' relative positions can enable a user to determine how to commute from a starting location to an ending location. Maps can also identify places that may be of interest to a user, such that a user can decide to travel to and stop at an identified place. 

However, maps are typically two-dimensional and visual, thereby providing limited information to a visually-impaired user. The user's access to location information can be even more limited when the user is not looking for any particular information. For example, while directions from a specific starting point to a specific destination point can be spoken, it is difficult to concisely convey general spatial relationships within an area that have the potential of being of interest to the user. Thus, the user can find it difficult or impossible to obtain a general understanding of streets and places in an unfamiliar area, and the user can feel lost and confused in a new environment. Apple wants to change this.

Of course, Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.