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A More Visible World: 3D Printing for Visually Impaired People

By May 1, 2017 No Comments

Close your eyes.

Now imagine having to navigate the world that way. Having to rely on all of your other senses to make it through the day.

Sounds scary and frustrating, right?

Yeah. But people with visual impairments do it every day.

There Just Isn’t Enough Help

There are many aids out there. But there need to be more.

Aids for visually impaired people are restricted by the same things all consumer goods are. They can only be manufactured so fast (many are handmade). They need to be designed in a way that makes sense to visually impaired people. Materials are costly. An aid that works for one person doesn’t necessarily help someone else.

So it makes sense to bring 3D printing into the picture. 3D printed aids:

  • Speed up the manufacturing process. 3D printing is slow compared to many types of manufacturing, but still much faster than handcrafting individual pieces.
  • Allow us to create aids out of materials other than the traditional paper and wood.
  • Create individualized aids as well as mass-producing aids once we find a design that works for a number of people
  • Adjust 3D files as we learn about the needs of visually impaired people without having to make major changes in the design and manufacturing process

What 3D Printing Has Done for Visually Impaired People

There are 21 million people in the United States alone with “functional vision problems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

And these people need help navigating the world around them. Learning in school or how to do their jobs. Sometimes they just want to “see” things as the rest of the world does.

Wayfinding

The 3D printing industry has already started providing solutions to some of these problems. Several companies and researchers are working on ways to create maps and geographic aids to help visually impaired people get around without having to memorize everything or carry around bulky maps.

(One of the maps being replaced? A piece of wood that is two feet tall and three feet wide at the Joseph Kohn Training Center. Students couldn’t take this with them – these maps were hung on the wall and only available when new students started.)

Education

If you’re like me, you probably had at least a couple of classes in school where the teacher didn’t have enough visual aids. You had to share or walk up one at a time to examine it.

It was frustrating, wasn’t it? You could never really remember exactly what it looked like. Someone else was always hogging it. It’s like this for visually impaired students in classrooms and vocational training programs across the country. Every day.

The goal for many in 3D printing is to eliminate this problem. Some are working on 3D printed books. Others are working on ways to help students see the places discussed in history classes and understand the concepts found in science classes.

Life in General

What happens when you see a photograph? You probably flash back to what was going on when it was taken.

But visually impaired people may not be able to see that photograph. So this company is 3D printing those images so they can remember, too.

Speaking of memorable moments, do you remember the first ultrasound of your baby? There’s another company that’s 3D printing ultrasound images so visually impaired parents can get the same thrill from the first time they “meet” their new child.

Progress Isn’t Easy, Though

It sounds like it should be simple, right? Just create a 3D file and print Braille and the other tactile cues visually impaired people rely on.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

Emmanuel and Rebecca Blaevoet, a couple in Canada, already create graphics in Braille for organizations. Rebecca is blind – she knows exactly the problems visually impaired people face each day.

The Blaevoets¬†recognize the benefits of using 3D printing for this purpose. But they also recognize the problems faced by companies doing similar work: 3D printer hardware isn’t quite up to the task. They’re working on changing that.

While the Blaevoets work on improving 3D printers for creating Braille, others are pushing forward on their projects. They’re running into other challenges.

This isn’t about just building a map or an educational tool. These people are realizing that they’re creating tools for people who experience the world differently than they do.

For example, a team that worked on designing 3D files for educational tools on open source websites found a common request from teachers: sharp edges need to be blunted in a way that makes visually impaired students (who in this case are often young children) comfortable handling the objects. Students can’t learn if they’re worried they’ll hurt themselves on the learning tools.

The Need for Individualization

When researchers in Korea set out to create tools to teach writing and reading to visually impaired children, they found that not every children needed the same level of thickness in the tools they created.

This is where 3D printing’s ease of customization is especially helpful. The research team went back and redesigned their tools for varying amounts of visual impairments.

Adding Braille to 3D Printed Objects

In the past, the marks used for Braille writing were usually made separately from the rest of the product. They were added later.

So 3D printing should simplify that process. We can just add the Braille into the 3D design, right?

Not quite. Designers are facing questions like how Braille should be incorporated (on the surface or recessed into the surface) and how far should the marks be raised or recessed for readability.

Figuring It Out

Not understanding the needs of visually impaired people is probably what causes most companies working on solutions to stumble. But once we do understand, 3D printing is indeed letting us get visually impaired people the aids they need for everyday life.

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