3D Printed Animotus Is a Handheld Smart Cube That Guides the Visually Impaired through Touch

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UntitledWe’ve followed numerous 3D printed innovations that have been created for the purpose of helping the visually impaired, from navigational-oriented methods to get around campuses, to ways to ‘view’ art exhibits and even a 3D printed Rubik’s Cube for left-brained recreation.

Now, there’s another cube on the horizon, but it serves on several levels simultaneously. Working as an incredible example of the innovations possible with 3D printing and a piece of performance art in itself, a shape-shifting cube created by Yale University engineer Adam Spiers also allows moviegoers to navigate their way through an entire Flatland-inspired production, but with some major twists and turns thrown into the mix.

Tentatively titled the Animotus, this 3D printed cube is one that adapts to the navigational needs of both the blind and the sighted. While this experience sounds as if it would be a bit eerie for the sighted, set in an old dark church, use of the Animotus itself sounds like a lot of fun to try out.

Spiers, a haptic specialist who was working in the robotics lab of associate professor Aaron Dollar as a post-doctorial associate, came upon the idea and based it on a novella by Edwin Abbott regarding dimensions, which was also made into a movie in 2007, called Flatland–just one of numerous productions that were made in homage to the satire which focuses on numerous geometries.


Spiers hits on several different dramatic planes with this 3D form that leads the audience–sighted and not–through a venue deprived of light. The sighted and visually impaired audience members were kept in complete darkness most of the time. They wandered through the space four at a time while a spoken narrative, and sound effects, told the story. Tactile set pieces were a major part of the ‘immersive theater experience’ as well.

As members moved through the space, the Animotus began to morph in their hands, leading the way. Part third dimension, part fourth, the cube is smart. Literally. It works according to the audience member’s location, operating handheld, with a turning mechanism to guide them forward. You don’t need to hear directions or hold someone’s hand to find your way. It’s all up to the 3D printed Animotus.

“The simple idea is that when you’ve arrived at your target destination, it becomes a little cube again,” said Spiers.

Audience members were tracked through the journey of the production wearing large suits–not unlike futuristic astronaut costumes–so that Spiers and his crew could track and analyze their movements, evaluating how well the Animotus served its purpose.

“That implies that they were pretty confident as they were moving around,” he said. “They only slowed down a little bit, despite being guided through an unknown dark space by a wholly unfamiliar technology.”

In a radical and performance-art style move at the end, the members were asked to give up their devices and then could hear them being destroyed nearby. Some were visibly upset, as they’d come to appreciate the cubes during their 40-minute travels and were rather attached already–another good sign as Spiers and his team evaluated the project, and the potential success of Animotus.

As is the case with much of innovation associated with 3D printing, and that of devices for the visually impaired, the territory for creating the Animotus was completely uncharted. Spiers had the concept but no framework or precedent to go by.

“Shape-changing is pretty new in haptics, so not a lot of people have done it before.”

1140435_YaleNewsSpiers said building the device took some trial and error because there was little precedent for it. While he cannot release the 3D files and more specific design details currently, he does hope to see this is as a device he can allow to be open source in the future.

As is so often the case with 3D printing in general, independence is not allowed just in being able to create something like the Animotus, but it also offers independence to the visually impaired and communicates in a silent, subtle manner without annoying vibrations or other bells and whistles.

“I’d like to try this out for the outdoors — hook it up to Google Maps and see what happens,” he said, regarding making Animotus even more versatile for the visually impaired. “Sound is pretty much how they appreciate the world. If you visit a city, you look around and you get an impression. That’s what visually impaired people do also, but with audio.”

Spiers worked with Extant, a production company in London, in putting on the production. They have numerous visually impaired members in their group, and actually received government funding from the UK for the project.

What type of impact do you think a 3D printed device like that could have for the visually impaired community in terms of navigating through a variety of venues? Discuss in the 3D Printed Animotus forum thread over at 3DPB.com. Check out a preview video below demonstrating the Animotus concept.


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