Nov.21, 2014 | By Alec

While 3D printing has already proven to be very capable of improving the lives of people with missing limbs, why shouldn't people with other types of disabilities benefit from this technology too? Now Researchers from the University at Buffalo have come up with an ingenious application – an interactive wayfinding - for the visually impaired.

Their innovation centers on tackling one of the most invasive consequences of being blind: finding your way around unfamiliar places. The blind tend to be quite capable of finding their way around in the privacy of their own homes and even in their own neighbourhoods, but travelling (unassisted) to unfamiliar cities, giant hospital buildings, museums, campuses or government institutions can be particularly challenging. Just imagine finding room 28B on the sixth floor of an unfamiliar building with your eyes shut, through the maze of corridors, elevators and weirdly shapes offices.

To be sure, that has gotten significantly easier in the last few years, thanks to the advent of audible GPS, that make it considerably easier to find your way around outside. However, 'the last mile', as the final, indoor part of a trip to the hospital or city hall is known, is as hard as ever as GPS tends to be useless inside.'

And this is exactly what this 3D printing innovation focuses on: making the last mile navigable. To address this problem, developers from the University of Buffalo (specifically the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, or IDeA) have teamed up with specialists from the New York-based sensory developer Touch Graphics Inc.

Lead by IDeA researcher Heamchand Subryan, IDeA Director Edward Steinfeld and Touch Graphics President Steve Landau, their team developed multi-sensory, touch-responsive maps, featuring 3D printed miniatures of structures and offices. These maps are made for touching; visitors can touch the structures (that have been covered in conductive paint),which will then vocalize information about that building and how to get there. It's a perfect way finding tool for the blind without sacrificing all their independence.

As iDeA researcher Heamchand Subryan explained, 'it's really about giving this audience, this population, a way to understand their environment. We're providing a level of information that allows them to navigate their environment easily, without help, which gives them a sense of independence.'

Guests can simply explore their surroundings with their hands and easily get to grips with structures and walking routes. These maps even feature a menu controlled by just three buttons, which lets users browse a verbal index of all the available information. They can simply select what they're looking for, and voice coaching will guide them there, As the designers explained, 'For blind users, this is crucial, because it serves the same purpose as the alphabetical listing of offices in many mainstream building directories: if you know the name of the place where you are going but not its location, you can look it up.' As a nice touch, sound effects have even been added to fountains and bell towers, to add an additional sense of realism.

As Steve Landau argued, it's the perfect solution for the last mile obstacle, 'These touch-responsive models solve [that problem] for blind pedestrians, who can often navigate to a building or campus address using GPS, but then need help to get to the classroom building or doctor's office where they need to be.'

Two of these prototypes have already been installed in the Massachusetts area: at the Technology Center, Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton and one at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Another has been placed at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. And another model is still under development at the Philadelphia-based Overbrook School for the Blind.

All three installations currently in use have been made using 3D printing and CNC milling at the IDeA Center, which is part of the University of Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning. All buildings also feature opaque, textured surfaces and shapes to make touching sensations easier and more realistic.

Obviously, these locations are frequented by many people, allowing the researchers to get some top-level feedback. However the researchers behind these 3D maps hope that everyone, even those without visual disabilities, are set to benefit from this technology. Specifically for them, special effects have been added to maps to make them visually beautiful and interactive, including lighting effects that literally light up your destination. And obviously the whole 3D effect should be easier to understand than a 2D map.

The models have already been extensively tested by blind, low-vision and mobility-impaired users. These carried out a five-minute exploration of the map, before engaging in a series of tasks that required using the menu features and actually navigating to places. And while testing is still underway, the researchers behind this project have already expressed expectations that these maps will be excellent guiding methods for the blind. How long would it take before we start seeing them in public places everywhere?

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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