The Community

Empowering blind and visually impaired people with 3D printing and design

By Paul Dunne

From Eleanor: Paul Dunne is a Shapeways Crew member and the C3PO (Chief 3D Printing Officer) of Blindesign, a company based in Ireland that works to empower blind and visually impaired people through 3D design and printing. He is a recent graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and has an exhibition of his work on view there from June 13 through 20. We first met Paul at a meetup we held in Dublin back in April! 

Blindesign embraces change in how we develop and acquire 3D printed products. It also enables a social benefit to blind and visually impaired people by carrying out creative workshops with the blind to create forms and drawings of how they see the world. These creations are then scanned and developed into 3D printed products and jewelry that are available to buy in a wide range of materials on Shapeways. The finished designs are the tangible aspects of the empowering experience from the workshops.

Through Blindesign I am committed to changing perspectives of what it means to have vision. Many thought the idea of collaborating with someone who is visually impaired or blind in the creation of designs was too crazy and couldn’t be done.

However, there is a motto among the visually impaired and blind at National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI), a charitable organization that provides services and support for people with sightloss. It starts by them asking a newbie, like I was at one time, “Do you know what VIP stands for?”. To which I answered, “Very important person.” They replied, “Yes, but also visually impaired people.” I was very struck by how powerful a comment it was. I could feel the pride and energy in the room when the connection was made. 

I wanted this project to emphasis that although the participants who I work with throughout this project are visually impaired or blind, they and their creations are the very important parts. I did this by making VIP spaces to keep the ‘Very Important Pieces’ that were made by hand and then to have the ‘Very Important Prints’ made with Shapeways. 

The NCBI organizes arts and craft workshops and enabled me take charge of one. In the first workshop I worked with 5 participants and I brought clay, paper, markers and paintbrushes as materials to for them to use for various tasks:
First I invited them to draw anything they wanted with markers on colored paper. They drew a wide variety of things – a tree, a ship, a car, a twirl, a horse.

Second task was to create products out of clay. So they made scale models of their interpretation of a chair, a table, a bowl, a door and a coin. Also, one participant, Eamonn, made his initials.

Third task was to make sculptural pieces by squeezing pieces of clay in their hand, creating simple elegant forms.

After the workshop I scanned the sketches with a normal 2d scanner and brought into Solidworks as an image and traced to create 3d designs. For the clay pieces, there are 3d scanners available that would make the scanning process easier, but I’m a poor design student so I used my digital camera and took about 50 images per piece. I brought the photos into Photoshop, removed the background, and added a fill color that is of high contrast to the model (I used green). This helped the 3D design software, such as Autodesk 123D Catch, interpret the piece in three dimensions. I then prepared the models for 3D printing with Shapeways.

A few weeks after the workshop I went back to the group to show them some of the models that were printed from their creations and test my Braille Game prototype with them. It was fascinating to see how they interacted differently with the products than sighted people. Investigating everything through touch, all the different textures and materials interrupt them and make them think of something differently.

A few examples of what we created: 

White containers: Shapes are generated by the visually impaired participants and are 3D scanned. The shape is digitally developed into storage pieces by dividing them up into 5 sections and hollowing them out. The organic forms stack neatly on top of one another. Holes are added for aesthetic reasons and also reduce the cost of manufacture. Each model is unique, and they tell different  stories. Understanding this, an individual and emotional connection is made between the piece and the end user.

Twirl lamp: The clay shapes which are created by the participants are 3D scanned and developed into lamps. The design is 3D printed as one piece, with ‘ball and socket’ style connections already in position when manufactured. The lights would be housed in shelled sections. The lights power on when the segments of the shape are twirled apart. The more it is twirled, the brighter the light gets. Future developments in material science may one day allow for the lamp and its light be printed together.

I’m also working on an open-source Braille Game to aid the blind in learning braille. The games range in size, with the larger ones more difficult to use to improve standard of literacy. On average, a staggering ninety percent of blind people can not read braille, and that percentage is higher in developing countries. The ability for blind people to read and write are essential to improve one’s education and employment opportunities. This open-source product is an design aspect to Blindesign. Committed designers are invited to collaborate on the development of educational products that help visually impaired and blind learn Braille. Files for this design are available on Grabcad.

Overall, my hope is to get others involved in hosting and partaking in workshops around the world involving blind and visually impaired people. The hosts don’t have to mirror the approach I did, it would be great to see different approaches and methods. Then to document the process, scan the creations made and develop them into 3D printable products and jewelry in their own way. Are others working with blind and visually impaired audiences for design and 3D printing? I’d love to share strategies!