Sunday, September 16, 2018

Some things are difficult to explain without a visual aid, but that’s not an option for people who are blind. The challenge in helping this population is to develop tactile “visuals” that are complicated enough to be useful while inexpensive enough to be practical. In a recent TEDx talk, recent highschool graduate Caroline Karbowski explained how her organization See3D is accomplishing just that, with 3D printing.

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In her talk, Karbowski explained how her project began with a childhood interest in Braille, and an article she read about people 3Dprinting models of telescopes and microscopes.

When Karbowski started attending high school, she noticed that her school’s 3D printers were going unused and that large student projects meant that filament remnant colors were just sitting around. And when she met her friend Cassandra, who is blind, the pieces came together.

Karbowski3D printed a model of a castle for Cassandra. “I asked her, ‘How would you describe a castle?’” Karbowski remembered. “And she said, ‘I can now feel the turrets. I can feel the walkways and the doorways. I have a more clear and vivid image of what ‘castle’ means. Before I touched the model, castle was just a word.’ And I thought, we need to make concepts more than just words.” She started exploring how she could helpforge connections between visually impaired people and sighted people who would be interested in 3D printing models for them.

Karbowski named her project See3D, and created a website with the help of several friends. Blind and visually impaired people could send in requests for item models, and sighted people who were enthusiastic about 3Dprinting could print them off and send them to See3D’s address. The project became her school’s 2016 Tech Olympics Showcase project, and won the school a grant that provided filaments, printers and 3DP software.

Now, See3D operates both in the U.S. and internationally. Its models have been incredibly useful, especially to students. While tactile models existed pre-3DP, they have historically been large and expensive, meaning that students generally can’t take them home to study. In contrast, 3D-printed models are relatively inexpensive, and they can be printed in many different sizes. One intriguing possibility that Karbowski discussed during her talk was that you could 3D print small models of an item to allow people to get the “big picture,” then print larger versions to enable people to examine items in finer detail afterward. So far, the most popular items include tiny objects like cells and protein carrier molecules, as well as much larger ones such as castles and The Statue of Liberty.

This isn’t the first initiative to help blind people learn accessibly with the help of 3D printing. Earlier this year, a researcher from the National Center for University Entrance Examinations in Japan looked at the possibility of 3Dprinting Braille letters, and identified improvements that would be necessary in any future project. Severalongoingprojects are 3D printing illustrations or pictures from picture books, to make the experience more accessible to children who are blind. And the Unseen Art project is working on scanning the Mona Lisa to develop a 3D-printed version, so that people can experience the painting’s famous smile regardless of whether or not they can see it.

In the future, Karbowski hopes to get her project into high school 3D printing classes across the United States, allowing students to print tactile models as class assignments. She also hopes her project will help blind people get involved in fields like science, where visual diagrams can mean that students with visual impairments maybe left out. "It's so important to include people who are blind in discussion like science or any field because they can provide a unique perspective on the world,” Karabowski concluded her TED talk. "There's so much we could learn from using all of our senses."