3D Printing to help the blind see Art

By Akudo McGee 6 Min Read

Our senses are often taken for granted. The most precious of these senses to many is the sense of sight. Notwithstanding the ability to see where you’re going and live independently, it provides a sense of dignity and equality that comes with being able to freely interpret the world around you, without having it explained. Often the difficulty of losing all or some of your sight comes from interactions with other people. This next startup, 3DPhotoworks is hoping to reduce some of that difficulty.

Picasso, The Kiss, The Mona Lisa, van Gogh- you may not be an art buff but you can likely recognize these artists and various works of art. In fact, you may have even seen a few in person. While we may not always understand it, a very important element of enjoying art is being able to see it, until now. The 3D printing technology startup, 3DPhotoworks uses 3D printing technology to create special art for the blind and visually impaired.

According to their website, 75% of what we learn is acquired by sight, however, 285 million people around the world require assistance just to learn and experience the world around them due to loss of sight.

Since so much of what we experience and are taught is connected to sight, those with no or limited sight often have limited prospects for education and the quality of the care, services, though treatment they receive is often linked to socio-economic status.

Less than 24% of blind Americans receive their high school diploma, even less receive their college degree ( less than 14%) and, unfortunately, 75% are unemployed. If they cannot generate income their financial stability is often directly related to the input of other people- in fact, 31% live below the poverty level in the United States, where it is legal to pay the blind less than minimum wage.

These maddening statistics give a visual into just how dire the situation is but there is another factor which is just as important. I’m talking about the feeling of dependence, the loss of freedom and independence that comes with being unable to experience the world around you without the assistance of others.

This is something that is mentioned, in addition to the statistics on 3DPhotoworks’ website. So how does, 3DPhotoworks give that feeling back? By developing a technology which converts any painting, drawing, collage or photograph into what they call a "3D Tactile Fine Art Print," they are hoping to give the blind and visually impaired a way to "see" images, through feeling them.

This is not an entirely new idea in principle, remember that braille relies on the sense of touch to be able to read words, however, the approach goes further than words and works almost like "reading faces." Tactile feedback allows visually impaired people to "read" or experience prints by using their fingertips so that a mental image is created in their minds with ever curvature and crevice they feel. Prints can even be embedded with sensors that activate custom audio when felt, allowing users to experience the painting more fully.

"Our goal is to make the world’s greatest art and greatest photography available to Blind people at every museum, every science center, and every cultural institution, first in this country and then beyond." John Olson, Co-Founder, 3DPhotoWorks

Whether it’s someone "reading" a face or a painting, how exactly does visualizing through touch work? According to 3DPhotoworks’s Kickstarter page, neuroscience research proves that the brain processes information felt through the hands and fingers the same way it processes information coming through our eyes. In this way organs used to hear, see etc. are just receptors for the auditory and visual information we take in so feeling is just another way to relay information to the brain.

So what can they reproduce using their 3D printing techniques? While their hope is to ensure art for the visually impaired is exhibited worldwide in museums, science centers, and various learning institutions, they are also able to create 3D tactile fine art portraits based on photographs as well (this was actually one of the gifts available on their Kickstarter page). Imagine a blind or visually impaired person able to "see" their wife, best friend, pet or grandchild for the first time using touch! They can also reproduce images on t-shirts, mugs, and watches.

If museums worldwide adopted the 3DPhotoWorks’ 3D printing process we could see a world where, rather than being lead to a painting and having is described, the blind and visually impaired can have the freedom of moving at their own pace and experiencing art for themselves. In that regard, "visualizing" art through touch is about so much more than the experience, it’s about independence, exploration, and dignity. These things are often lost when people lose their sight but startups like 3DPhotoWorks are ensuring that they don’t have to be.

Share This Article