3D Printing for the Visually Impaired

This project was neither Math nor Art, but it called on a lot of the skills I developed doing both, so I thought it appropriate to write about here.

Last June I was contacted by our Office of Student Affairs about a student who would be joining us in the Fall. The student is visually impaired, and they asked if I could create a relief map of the campus to help guide her.

After a few conversations, I realized there were a few important design constraints:

  1. The map had to be small enough in all three dimensions to fit in a backpack. In particular, that meant fairly shallow relief.
  2. It had to be large enough that the individual features could be easily detected by touch.
  3. The map should only include relevant details of the campus, or it would get too cluttered: only buildings, paths, and roads were necessary.
  4. Somehow this project shouldn’t take a lot of MY time. They weren’t paying me anything, and no one knew how useful the finished product was going to be to the student.

The last criterion was the most important. I could spend hours individually modeling each building, but that really wasn’t necessary.  So I had to think about other solutions…

I started by asking our Office of Communications for a simple line drawing of the campus, including only the relevant features. Here’s what they gave me:vectormap

Next, I was able to import this into Rhino3D, and automatically extract the outlines of each feature. It only took about an hour or two to raise each outline to a different height in the z-direction, and make them 3-dimensional. I made the heights correspond to the type of object, rather than any kind of representation of reality. So all buildings were one height, roads another, paths a third, etc. I was hoping that would provide enough tactile information to distinguish between them. With much more time I could have added textures (e.g. make grassy areas rough), but that didn’t seem necessary at this point. Here’s the finished digital model:


I realized the buildings were going to need labels. I thought about adding braille on top of each building, but that was going to take way too much time. After some internet searching, I discovered this braille label maker:

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 8.04.13 AM

So I ordered it, and showed the people at the Office of Communications how to use it to manually add labels. I’m sure that was labor intensive, but I didn’t end up having to deal with it. It’d be worth incorporating braille in the digital model if we were going to make these things on a regular basis, but as I said above, it wasn’t clear how useful the finished product was going to be, or if and when the college would admit another visually impaired student.

The finished map was printed at Shapeways.com. Here it is! If you look closely you can see braille labels on a few of the buildings. The whole thing is 10″ by 11″, and about one-third of an inch high, so it slips easily in a backpack between books.


I was recently told that it got used by the student extensively. It helped guide her around to the point she memorized the paths to take, which was exactly its purpose. Success!

3D Printing for the Visually Impaired

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