Giving the blind a “Hands on Search” with 3D printing

The lives of disabled people and animals alike have been improved by 3D printing. And the visually impaired aren’t being left out. The Midas Touch project out of Harvard seeks to print tactile versions of paintings, and a recent winner of the 3D Printers for Peace contest created a printable tool for teaching Braille. Now visually impaired students in Japan have been introduced to Hands on Search from Yahoo! Japan.

The whole idea is to include the visually impaired in searching on the internet. As the project states, “The internet is visual and auditory. What if the sense of touch became possible?” There’s no better tool for making that reality than a 3D printer. In this case it’s a MakerBot Replicator 2 that’s been situated into a pleasant, cloud-like console that has only two large buttons. One button activates a voice-based search, and if the search finds something then the other button prints the object. If the search returns nothing then an ad is created asking for someone to create the object.

Hands On Search

Students at the Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired at University of Tsukuba got to try Hands on Search, and surely they were excited. Solid objects have immense value to the visually impaired, especially those that are completely blind. For them touch is far more communicative than text. Grasping certain concepts is much easier when shapes and dimensions can be felt. Imagine trying to explain airplanes to someone that has never seen one and can’t see the gestures you’d normally use. Much of our physical world can be scaled down to printable models. Bringing in a 3D printer is a form of communication here, not just fabricating.

Do you know what else operates through verbal commands? The replicators from Star Trek. One step closer.