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Beyond Braille: 3-D Printed Books For The Blind

A page from the <em>Goodnight Moon </em>3-D book.
Courtesy of the University of Colorado Boulder
A page from the Goodnight Moon 3-D book.

This post is part of our Weekly Innovation series, in which we explore an interesting idea, design or product that you may not have heard of yet. Do you have an innovation to share? Use this quick form.

Now here's something Helen Keller couldn't have dreamed up: the picture book Goodnight Moon, but with all the pictures — the mittens and the kittens, the socks and clock, the mouse and little house — come to life in sculptural 3-D.

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder already have imagined it. And they, along with others in the Tactile Picture Books Project, have made it — as well as 3-D printed versions of Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Tactile books for little readers have long existed, of course, with swatches of felt and textured patches perfect for small fingertips to graze over. And other organizations, like the American Printing House for the Blind and the National Braille Press, are also exploring the tactile-books space.

But the Tactile Picture Books Project takes touch books to a new level, courtesy of 3-D printing. The emerging technology opens up the possibility of fast, customizable, sculptured versions of 2-D books. One eventual goal: to allow parents to snap a photo of a 2-D book page, send it to the printer and — voila! — get a 3-D version of the same. Another: to develop a library of graphics that can be printed on the fly.

There's a long way to go, in terms of feasibility, says Abigale Stangl, one of the researchers. But she says it's well worth it. The more a visually impaired child explores her world with touch, the more capable she becomes, Stangl says.

"Our focus is really looking at children who are in the stages of emergent literacy ... and how can parents help create an experience to help children understand that books contain knowledge and develop a comfort with feeling books and feeling the environment," says Stangl.

But how to tell if a child is really engaging with tactile books? Stangl, who also volunteers at a school for the visually impaired in Denver, says the team is exploring different ways of testing engagement. Sensors might detect how long a child is touching the page and whether that equates to attention, or capturing the interaction between the child and parent.

Sounds like true universal design: Little is more sacred across cultures than a good bedtime story.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a tech buff and journalist working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter: @VigneshR

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