Art for the Visually Impaired, 3D Printed Paintings!

3D printing is nothing new, and with the advancement of technology it has become important in many different areas. For example, doctors are trying to print bionic eyes to help blind people see again, and the same technology was also used in Nantes, France, to print social housing. However, there’s still so much more 3D printing can do. National Taiwan Museum has used it to make three-dimensional versions of paintings to enable visually impaired people to appreciate them as well.

Accessible art for everybody

You might wonder why we would want to help visually impaired people “see” the exhibition. It’s about accessibility. Everybody has the right to respect in all aspects of their lives, and this includes the ability to interact with and enjoy different cultures, regardless of who they are.

We live in a diverse society and we have to make sure everybody gets what they need. Image by Wokandapix @pixabay

Different people have different needs. For example, seniors might need large print and more space for wheelchairs or walking frames; children might need higher chairs and platforms; visually impaired people might need audio description; and autistic people might want a quiet environment.

The National Taiwan Museum houses a permanent exhibition entitled Aggregation & Blooming, Artists Groups and the Development of Fine Arts in Taiwan, which features assistive technology for the visually impaired to enable them to enjoy the artworks. Six steps are involved in designing technology like this:

  1. Message design
  2. 3D modeling
  3. Test printing
  4. 3D printing
  5. Rotational molding
  6. Coloring

Lichao Chen from Ctrl + P gives a talk on 3D printed vision assistive technology on Maker Hatch Day.

The importance of message design

Lichao Chen, who is in charge of designing and manufacturing assistive technology at Ctrl + P, said that choosing three out of a hundred paintings to showcase the technology was a challenge in itself.

After some discussion, the team decided to pick one painting from each period: Ting-pho Tan’s “Tamsui Landscape” made during the Japanese occupation, Shi-Chi Lee’s “Untitled” from the postwar period, and Yong Tsun Chang’s “Elevation of Civilization” from the 90s. These three paintings are unique in different ways but share the common theme of the house. The entire process was carried out as though the exhibition was just for the visually impaired.

Many things have to be considered before you start designing assistive technology. The designer has to understand that visually impaired people learn about a house through hearing or touch and that visual impairment is on a spectrum—it’s not all or nothing. Many visually impaired people can still see a little, which is why the team decided to make the assistive technology colorful.

The other key point in message design is to think about what you want to show. Too much information does not help visually impaired people understand artworks; in fact, it can be overwhelming. This is why it is necessary to consult artists to understand the paintings if visually impaired people are to feel their depth as 3D works. Only once the message has been designed can you proceed to 3D modeling.

Test printing is the most important part of modeling. During this phase, the team printed many different models, including three different angles between the walls and ceilings (30°, 45° and 90°) before they got it right. The angles have to be clear and consistent to avoid confusing visually impaired visitors.

In order to fully represent Ting-pho Tan’s work, the team decided to make a 1:1 replica, so they had to use the largest 3D printer in Taiwan, the Voxeljet 2000, to print the 2m x 1m x 1m work, which is even bigger than a bed. Lichao Chen said it was a shock to see the final object, even though they knew in advance how big it was going to be.

The life-size representation of Ting-pho Tan’s work is simply stunning. Image by National Taiwan Museum

After the printing, it’s time to make the silicone mold, and then do the coloring. Instead of artists, Chen hired “restorers” to help his team make their works look more natural in the height differences in the transition areas. The most challenging task of the entire process was the last three months of building the color foundation layer by layer.

Watercolor in 3D, even more depth

The watercolor painting “Elevation of Civilization” utilizes repeated geometric shapes to depict crowdedness and oppression. While working on it, the team was able to recreate these feelings and design the assistive technology differently. They designed a device only partly based on the painting and amplified it to turn it into an interactive feature, which is why they chose rigid materials to make it durable.

The modeling of this painting was relatively easy, and the team also simplified all the different shades of blue into two main layers. But the work was not done yet. During test printing, they encountered two new problems: glue residue and sharp edges.

They solved these problems using the simplest method possible: hand grinding. According to Chen, having done this project the team could do art restoration work.

All these puzzle pieces were ground by hand. Image by National Taiwan Museum

Test printing—an absolute necessity

The last painting, “Untitled,” was designed to have multiple layers using a tool the team is familiar with, so everything went well. However, they had to adjust some heights and changed materials to make differences apparent to the sense of touch.

Designing assistive technology is not easy. You have to do a lot of fine-tuning. Image by National Taiwan Museum

Besides 3D printed assistive technology, the exhibition features other educational activities with audio description.

Lichao Chen listed what he has learned so far:

  1. Understand the environment and the needs of users.
  2. Choose the right software and hardware.
  3. Always test print.

Apart from knowing how the assistive technology will work, you also need to choose your software and hardware, and consider all potential restrictions when you design. This is why test printing is important. Without it, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

It takes a lot of time and testing to apply new technology to art, but it’s all worth it. During the exhibition, artist Yong Tsun Chang went to see it. Chang is old and disabled due to a stroke, so his daughter was there with him. She said the assistive puzzle was a wonderful way to help her father recover. Chang said he was happy that more people would be able to experience his work.

  • See how much National Taiwan Museum has done to enhance accessibility:

  • Read this article to learn more about accessible cultural activities.

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