RU_LOGOTYPE_CMYKThere are many organizations, individuals, and family members who are engaged in helping those with physical challenges on a daily basis, making an incredibly positive impact and offering the most valuable of help in improving the quality of life for others. The impact that the visually impaired have on the rest of the world though is often overlooked, as we are busy patting ourselves on the backs.

From amazing historical figures like Helen Keller to musical greats like Ray Charles–to that of the strength of hundreds of millions of visually impaired people around the world—inspiration is everywhere. And often when it comes to creating new products, those being helped offer the most impact and insight for innovation. This was certainly the case as engineering student Jason Kim and Howon Lee, assistant professor in Rutgers’ Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, embarked on a project to make highly sophisticated, 3D printed Braille maps in coordination with a training center that the visually impaired would be using on a regular basis.

The mapmaking project was made doubly successful by the impact that the visually impaired themselves had on the team as they worked to really understand the challenges. They talked with students as well as trying to imagine how they must struggle on a constant basis, trying to navigate without sight.

“Design, using this technology, practicing–everything is important–but I think what is more important is to put yourself in their shoes,” Lee said, emphasizing the value in the maps they created, as they operate like a GPS for students.

The project scope involves the 3D printing of three plastic maps—one for use on each floor of the Joseph Kohn Training Center in New Brunswick. This facility for the blind and visually impaired offers many services to New Jersey residents, including counseling, personal guidance, and help with educational issues, and job placement. The emphasis is very much on vocational skills which lead to independence. In a 20-week free training program, students 18 and over learn skills that apply to attending school, working, as well as being able to function as homemakers.

Lee was motivated by a recent trip to South Korea. Upon visiting the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, he was inspired and impressed to see how those at the institute were working to make educational materials for young kids—all via the 3D printer.

Photo: Cameron Bowman Engineering student Jason Kim and Howon Lee, assistant professor in Rutgers' Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, with a 3D-printed tactile map with braille.

Jason Kim and Howon Lee, with one of their 3D printed Braille maps. [Photo: Cameron Bowman]

When Kim approached Lee regarding a good project for summer last year, and one that would benefit the community, he was met with a very positive response—and they both set to work on the 3D printed maps, as 3D printing is a specialty within this department.

“I had just learned how to use SolidWorks {3-D modeling computer-aided design software} and so this summer project would be a great way to exercise a skill I had just acquired, just for the community,” Kim said. “He told me about this opportunity and I thought it was perfect.”

The only obstacle for the team was that they had virtually no knowledge of Braille.

“One of the things we saw with conventional braille printed on paper is that it doesn’t last long,” Lee said.

They bravely took on the learning curve involved, and spent several trips to the center visiting with the students and assessing needs, as they worked to replace existing older wooden maps with several Braille labels that are currently hanging on walls. The goal of the team, eventually, is to make maps for all the students at the center. Right now, they have one completed.

“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.”

The new 3D printed map was produced at Rutgers, and is sized only a tiny bit larger than your typical tablet, enclosed in a binder, allowing students to carry it for reference. It includes a legend and guide in Braille.

TactileMap

One of the 3D printed maps, in its binder. [Photo: Cameron Bowman]

The staff was very appreciative of the new map, saying it will be of great help to their students. The overall idea is to extend freedom and navigation without a great deal of worry for those who are visually impaired. The project has inspired greater ambitions as well for the area as Lee is considering the development of other 3D printed maps for the campuses of Rutgers as well as the city of New Brunswick.

We’ve seen a surge in these types of 3D printing projects meant to help the visually impaired get around a variety of areas more expediently, from mall maps in Finland to campus maps for learning institutions like the University of Central Missouri. We’ve followed incredibly futuristic systems that help the visually impaired in Germany manage maps, diagrams, and other spatial data, and we’ve even seen some really cool devices like 3D printed navigational cubes which allow the blind to enjoy interactive entertainment.

In all of these instances, and most specifically the new program at the Joseph Kohn Training Center, we’re able to see how in a very short time 3D printing is able to make sweeping changes we simply did not expect to see only a few short years ago. While a map may be something those of us with sight use and take for granted, these innovative new 3D printed navigational devices can make a huge difference for the blind in being able to get around; not only that, with most of the devices that are in public arenas, it’s been noted that they are helpful for everybody. Do you expect to see a lot more of these maps in the future? Discuss in the 3D Printed Campus Maps for Blind forum over at 3DPB.com.

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