A New Dimension for those with Blindness

Graeme Turner
Just think how a person with blindness might get a better understanding of an object such as a building or a wild animal, if they could feel the shape of it. Now computers can print things out in three dimensions, giving such people a chance to feel what objects are really like. Printers lay down plastic which builds up to form 3D shapes. Those with blindness could feel a certain type of car, the shape of their own house or the face of a friend. Not too many people know about this in Australia yet, but the future is exciting.
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Graeme Turner on 03/09/2013
A small 3D printer, with colourful printed objects beside it on a table.

3D printing is adding a new dimension to the understanding of objects by those with blindness and vision impairment.

A person with blindness runs their hands over a model Jaguar car. There is a cry of delight as he or she gets the feel of what this vehicle is like. Such models have traditionally been available from hobby shops, but what happens if more exotic objects such as rare animals or architectural masterpieces need to be understood.

3D printing, which has developed so rapidly in the past few years, is adding a new dimension to the understanding of objects by those with blindness and vision impairment.

Diagrams or pictures which feature raised lines or areas that can be felt by those with blindness have been around for years. But with the advent of new technology, images can now be scanned and then printed using 3D techniques.

The principle of 3D printing is straight forward. As a conventional set up prints out a flat image using ink, so a 3D printer builds up a3 dimensional object, the features of which can be easily made out through touch.

How does it work?

Images can be scanned and processed by Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software. The resulting 3 dimensional file can be fed into a printer which will spray a specified amount of hot plastic on to a base. This could be hardened by a heat source such as a laser. More layers are added until the 3D form of an object, such as the Arts Centre Spire, can take shape. Sometimes powdered plastic or resin is used and heated in the same manner, although the objects can be left with a rougher, less defined finish.

These printers are still expensive, as much as $60,000 for the advanced kind, but like any new technology, they are expected to come down quickly in price. Simpler models are available in Australia right now for $1600, but like most early forms of a new technology, their outputs are considered fairly basic in quality.

The scan that this 3D model is made from can be conducted by a camera snapping images of the 3D object from all angles, or by spinning the desired shape on a platter within the body of the printer, much like a microwave, until all sides are captured photographically.

There are also some interesting alternatives to the printers on the market, which use a similar type of plastic technology. If you fancy penning a 3D object from scratch you could try the 3doodler (http://www.the3doodler.com/). Heated plastic is extruded from a pen like object, hardening as it hits the air. This allows the artist to create angles and shapes that can be seen and touched from all directions. It's not designed specifically for those with vision impairment, but has clear applications in this area.

Birth of an Idea

Even expectant mothers with blindness might experience the joy of sighted parents by feeling a plastic 3D image of their own unborn child. This conversion of sonogram images has been pioneered by George Roberto Dos Santos as reported on io9.com (http://io9.com/3d-sonograms-let-blind-expectant-parents-see-their-ba-472999403). It has to be said that these developments are at this stage 'embryonic', but also that they are very, very cool.

The exciting applications for this kind of technology in the training of children who are blind or vision impaired are little known in Australia as yet.

Kay Berry-Smith, principle of the Insight School for Children with Vision Impairment, is upbeat about the possibilities. She foresees applications such as giving students a 'hands on' look at particular types of architecture. They could, for example, be able to feel the size and shape of iconic buildings such as Big Ben, or buildings of historical significance such as the pyramids or Stonehenge. To teach those sorts of concepts, she says, would be amazingly valuable.

What applications can you think of for this remarkable technology? Tell us in your comments below.

Readers comments (2)

Graham, the prospects and uses of 3D printers are very exciting, yet as you state in your article they are little know. In disabilities, printers are already being used to build artificial limbs and fingers. They are being used to build tools for people with disabilities to use. Industrial size 3D printers have been used to construct houses. Nasa used one to make a rocket engine casing in much less time than it would take to build it conventionally. In the near future, every household might have a 3D printer in their garage. Which then begs the question, what effect this will have on manufacturing industries? And I can only see the demand for people who can use computers to design stuff skyrocketing.

I just recently heard people talking about 3D printing!

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