Feb 26, 2016 | By Kira

For the blind and visually impaired, tactile learning is one of the most important ways to come to know the world, and in particular, their immediate surroundings. This information can be invaluable in an emergency scenario, say, if one needs to locate a fire exit. Yet even on a daily basis, the freedom to safely and independently navigate a workplace, neighborhood, or even city can greatly improve peoples’ quality of life. To address this issue, two separate yet very promising projects have recently emerged that combine high-tech 3D printing with geographical data to produce high quality, 3D printed tactile maps for the blind and visually impaired.

Rutgers’ Engineers 3D print Braille maps for visually impaired students

The first such project comes from Rutgers University’s School of Engineering in New Jersey, where an engineering student and his professor have created sophisticated, durable 3D printed Braille maps for members of the Joseph Kohn Training Center, a state-funded facility that helps the blind and visually impaired gain real-world training and vocational skills so they can attend college or find employment.

Each of the three 3D printed tactile maps represents a different floor of the Joseph Kohn Training center, and can be used by its faculty and students to physically grasp the building’s layout and navigate it independently—consider them a sort of tangible GPS.

Senior mechanical engineering student Jason Kim and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Howon Lee, initiated the project after Lee saw a similar application of 3D printing technology at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, where 3D printed materials were being used to educate young children. Kim, who had experience in SolidWorks 3D CAD modelling, had approached Lee looking for a summer project that would help the community, and the project immediately took off.

Jason Kim and Howon Lee with a 3D printed tactile Braille map

Though neither knew anything about Braille, a form of tactile, written language for the blind, they visited regularly with students at the Joseph Kohn Training Center to get feedback and advice. One common issue they encountered was that conventional Braille printed on paper wears down very quickly. 3D printing the Braille in durable plastic using Rutgers’ state-of-the-art 3D printers, however, ensures that they will provide accurate information for much longer.

The 3D printed Braille maps are just slightly smaller than a computer tablet and are kept in a binder for easy transportation and reference. In addition to featuring a tactile representation of the building’s floor plan, each map has a legend written in Braille; a feature that was missing from prior maps, yet makes reading them much easier.

“It was a very fulfilling experience,” said Kim. “I learned a lot. The most difficult part was trying to imagine what it would be like to be blind myself so I could better tackle the problem, and it opened my eyes to the whole visually impaired and blind community.” “Design, using this technology, practicing – everything is important – but I think what is more important is to put yourself in their shoes,” added Lee.

So far, the 3D printed tactile maps have received extremely positive feedback from the Joseph Kohn Training Center staff, who have said they will be very helpful for the center’s students, and are a huge improvement over the existing clunky wooden maps they were using before. In the near future, Kim and Lee hope to 3D print several more copies of these tactile Braille maps so that eventually every student could have their own. They are also looking into creating 3D printed maps of the Rutgers’ campus and the city of New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Touch Mapper: custom 3D printed tactile maps

A second initiative seeking to provide high-quality 3D printed maps for the blind is Touch Mapper, created by Samuli Kärkkäinen of Finland. The idea behind this beta-phase startup is that users can create custom 3D outdoor tactile maps of the address or area of their choice based on freely available map data. They can then either order an affordable 3D printed version of the map, or download the files to 3D print for themselves.

These tactile maps are created entirely with the user in mind, and are optimized to be as easy to use as possible, regardless of the persons’ experience or skill-level with Braille. This is particularly important for those who lost their vision at a later age, since adjusting to tactile learning can be an extremely difficult process. The Touch Mapper 3D tactile maps thus come in two scales: Normal, for those who are experienced with tactile learning and reading Braille; and Large, for users who have lost their vision at a later age, or cannot read Braille.

They also feature clear and practical tangible markers: for example, roads of all sizes are marked, but pedestrian roads are higher, since they are more relevant to the visually impaired. Selected addresses are represented by a cone, and the North-East corner is marked to indicate correct orientation. All of the data for the 3D printed Touch Mapper maps comes from OpenStreetMap, and the website is integrated with Finland-based Playful Pixels’ 3D printing service so users can order their tactile maps with the click of a button.

Touch Mapper is currently still in Beta mode, and Kärkkäinen is actively looking for feedback and suggestions in order to officially launch the service and help bring it to as many people in need as possible.

Both of these projects demonstrate the power of 3D printing to tangibly improve peoples’ quality of life, regardless of their physical limitations. Previously, we have seen similar of examples of 3D printed tools or initiatives for the blind and visually impaired, including 3D printed tactile books for children, 3D printed tactile sheet music, and ‘blind-friendly’ 3D printed fixtures for visually impaired workers.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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