Imagining a New Way to Read, One 3D-Printed Book at a Time

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Blind and visually impaired children will now be able to experience classic picture books like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon with the help of 3D printing technology.

Researchers at the University of Colorado have created a new project that can convert standard picture books into 3D-printed pages, letting children with visual impairments follow the raised illustrations by touch as the stories are read aloud.

om Yeh, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Computer Science who directed the project, said the goal of The Tactile Picture Books Project is to use computer science to better people’s lives.

“I realized we could do something meaningful by interpreting pictures from these children’s books using mathematical diagrams,” he said. “This project is much more difficult than I envisioned, but it also is much more rewarding.”

The project was created in partnership with the Anchor Center, an organization in Denver dedicated to supporting and educating vision impaired children. The center’s executive director, Alice Applebaum, told Mashable that books that can be read by touch — tactile books — are central to the education of vision impaired children.

“We often add texture to books; we have a room here where we add braille and things that children can feel to stories,” she said. “It’s just like when we learn how to read with our eyes, but they’re learning with all their other senses.”

Since many children don’t start reading braille until age 6, this program has given kids the chance to read with their families at even younger ages and get used to exploring with their hands.

Applebaum said the center has always made tactile books “the old-fashioned way,” cutting and pasting textured items to traditional picture books.

“It is one more opportunity for visually impaired children to experience literacy in an expanded way,” Applebaum said. “Will it make them better readers? Not necessarily, but it will make them more aware of what the world looks like.”

Researchers at the university convert the images into 3D-printed books through computational algorithms. Yeh said the ultimate goal is to streamline the process so educators and parents of visually impaired children can take a photo of a children’s book and send the photo to a 3D printer to create a tactile book.

“We are investigating the scientific, technical and human issues that must be addressed before this vision can be fully realized,” he said. “Since each child generally has his or her unique visual impairment issues, the idea is to customize each book for each child.”

Abigale Stangl is a researcher for the project and a student in ATLAS, multidisciplinary Institute at the University of Colorado. She says feedback from children the Anchor Center was essential to their work.

“We have seen a need and opportunity to make some of these practices more efficient and support development of custom learning tools and resources,” she told.

3D printing has greatly evolved in recent years, with the potential to change the production of everything from fashion to guns. Yeh said he hopes the project will make this technology more accessible to the public.

Several interfaces exist for designing 3D models, Yeh mentioned, such as Google SketchUp — but not many programs have been created with parents’ needs in mind. The Tactile Picture Book Project is currently testing software programs and leading workshops to teach parents how to create their own books. Researchers hope to someday provide instructions and algorithms on their website so parents can create products with their own 3D printers; as 3D printing continues to grow in popularity and decrease in price, Yeh said, more people will be able to create books at home.

Currently, tactile books are beautiful, but very labor-intensive and expensive, he added. But the future looks bright.

“Affordable 3D printing technology should be available in the very near future,” he said. “In two to three years, 3D printers could be less than $1,000.”

Since the original Goodnight Moon book was 3D-printed, the Tactile Picture Books Project has added The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Cat in the Hat to the collection, and it’s continuing to grow.


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