September 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 9

Technology Spotlight

SEE3D: Teenagers Expand the Visual World for People Who Are Blind

As an adult, one of my favorite shopping venues has long been toy stores, or, to be more precise, the section in toy stores where the plush and/or plastic animals and characters reside. Like most blind people, I see with my hands. While using the tactile to translate the visual results in fabulous images delivered to the brain, there are definite limitations on the range of "sight" when touch is required.

I can't touch a rat, a fox, or a crocodile. Nor would I want to touch them. But three-dimensional replicas fill the void.

SEE3D at the Tech Olympics

Caroline Karbowski, a bright and talented senior at Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio, did not yet have any blind friends when she started thinking about the power of 3D printing to deliver visual images into the hands of people who could not see in the conventional way. As a high school junior, she attended a college open house at Xavier University and happened to meet Casandra Jones, a disability services professional who is blind.

She asked Cassandra the probing question, "What images would you like to see?"

The answer, more delightful than profound, was "Mickey Mouse and a Disney castle."

Caroline found a 3D printer and an online image and the amazing palm-sized model was soon in Cassandra's hands.

People suggested to Caroline that she meet Haley Thurston, the daughter of the Spanish teacher at Caroline's school. The same age as Caroline, Haley was immediately enthusiastic. She was also ready with ideas of images she would like to see.

Haley, it turned out, longed to see a map of the world, various geometric shapes, and insects.

Caroline, with her 3D printing, was off and running.

Speaking of running, ideas seem to spark in Caroline's imagination almost faster than she can catch them, but one idea she caught and tackled was to find some collaborators with more tech experience than her own. She wanted to build a project worthy of competition in the Tech Olympics.

She is not a techie herself, she says, just a person with an idea of how to help blind people see the world. Her tech teacher at Summit and the school Tech Club jumped on board. A website was launched, a plan developed, and a project called SEE3D won second place in Cincinnati's Tech Olympics. That was February, 2017--history, you might say, but Caroline and See3D have just begun.

Consulting the Experts

Caroline Karbowski has no shortage of intellect or creativity. She told me that she learned the braille alphabet when she had an hour of boredom to fill as a sixth grader, accomplishing the task with a pencil point and encyclopedic image of the six-dot code. She is wise enough, in other words, to realize that to make See3D a truly successful venture, she needs to gather information from experts. To that end, she has traveled with her parents to sources in Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, and New York, and is still gathering information. She has shared information with teachers of the visually impaired, and the information is clearly flowing in both directions.

In Indiana, she was thrilled to see the project of a teacher there who is assembling, piece by piece, a 3D replica of the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

In Chicago, she delighted teacher and students alike with her models of minions!

She gave them minions and butterflies and they gave her some clear plastic labeling sheets, so she could begin making braille labels for all her images.

While Caroline and the half dozen students working with her have created plenty of images for fun, she sees the greatest future for the project in making 3D images with a purpose. In particular, she is focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) images. Touring, a website dedicated to sharing images created for 3D printing, she has downloaded and produced 3D representations of DNA, molecules, myriad shapes, topographical maps, a chameleon, a cell, and more. Besides visiting schools for the blind and talking to professors and teachers involved with the education of blind children, she is contacting blind people one by one as well.

Growing See3D

While Caroline maintains that using 3D printers is dramatically less expensive than purchasing science-related kits designed for the blind, producing images still costs money. Her school has a half dozen 3D printers and she has enlisted collaboration from students at other area high schools, but after the success at the Tech Olympics, she launched a GoFundMe page to help purchase supplies. So far, she has used the money to buy filament and plastic labeling paper. Her hope is to purchase a Perkins Brailler, which her friend, Haley, has been teaching her to use.

See3D received a grant of $250 (the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots grant), and a 3D printing package through the GE Additive Education Program. The latter includes two Polar Cloud-enabled polymer printers, one Polar 3D printer and one XYZprinting printer. It also includes Polar 3D's STEAMtrax curriculum with a two year license, six rolls of filament for each printer and one of the STEAMtrax module kits, "Tinkering with Turbines."

Producing the Models

At this point, Caroline and her collaborators are not creating new images, but searching for existing images that will work well for blind people. Her primary source is the Thingiverse website where she invites schools and individuals to browse and request images of interest found there. The filament used to create the images comes in rolls that resemble dinner plates, and is available in a variety of colors and textures. The filament is threaded, something like spaghetti, into the machine which, as Caroline describes it, functions more like a hot glue gun than a printer.

At present, See3D students are not particular about the colors used for a given model. Rather, to be economical, they are inclined to simply use a color until the roll of filament is used up.

The goal of See3D is to build a collaborative network of high school students who can produce the 3D models for teachers of the visually impaired and blind individuals themselves who request them.

The Bottom Line

Caroline had been given my name by other blind people in Cincinnati and contacted me to ask if I'd like to receive any of the 3D models. After our first conversation, she sent me a Cinderella castle and a butterfly.

The professional nature of the packaging surpassed that of some for-profit companies shipping products to blind and low vision individuals.

On the outside of the package were braille labels, so that I immediately knew it was the package sent by Caroline of See3D. Inside, the models were protectively wrapped. There was a braille letter (Caroline's grade 2 braille was not perfect, but absolutely clear) along with business cards that bore both print and braille contact information.

The models themselves are delightful. There is something mesmerizing about the butterfly in particular. Each time I pick it up, I find running my fingers over its wings and antennae somewhat irresistible.

If you are blind or have significant low vision, reflect for me on a few questions: Can you confidently describe a Disney castle? A butterfly? Shrek? Or a minion? How about the inner layers of the earth? Or a particular constellation of stars? Do you have a mental image of the face of Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama?

The sense of touch (or, more precisely in this context, touch translating for sight) can deliver powerful visual images to the brain, but there are countless images all around us that are well beyond the typical three-foot reach of a human being's arm.

If you would like to request a 3D model for yourself or your students, send your request via email.

Caroline is about to begin her senior year and she is involved in academics, theater, music, golf, not to mention all of the rigorous planning involved in choosing and getting ready for college, but she is passionate about this project and is recruiting more collaborators to help.

As the project grows, you can read more at the SEE3D website.

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