3DPhotoWorks Makes Art More Accessible to the Blind

The startup’s printing technology helps people visualize images through touch

8 June 2017

If you’ve ever seen a Leonardo di Vinci masterpiece or a photography exhibit, you can understand how images are able to transform your perspective of the world. But the blind and the visually impaired cannot experience art in the same way. That’s why one IEEE member has developed a technology to help bridge that gap.

As CTO of the startup 3DPhotoWorks, in Chatham, N.Y., Angelo Quattrociocchi invented a system that can print paintings and photographs on wood, high-density polyurethane foam, and other materials. People can touch the artwork and feel its shapes and textures—not necessarily textures that were in the original artwork but ones that now provide a tactile way of “seeing” the art.

The company, which got its start in 2008, has displayed its tactile art in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as part of the Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists exhibition. The art for Sight Unseen was created by artists with varying degrees of visual impairment. 3DPhotoWorks created the prints so that visitors could feel what’s in the images, such as a photo of a hand reaching out to touch a woman’s face.

The company is working on installations for five colleges and museums including the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in April in Philadelphia.

The startup employs 10 people and says it is breaking even. With interest picking up from museums and educational institutions, though, the company says it expects to be profitable in the next couple of years.

Some of the artworks incorporate infrared sensors that, when touched, provide audio from speakers or headphones with additional information about each piece.

Blind and visually impaired visitors to museums are typically escorted by docents, who describe the images to them. However, as visitor Deanna Ng said in a video about the Sight Unseen exhibit, “When others describe art to you, it’s from their experience and not your own. [With tactile art] I can interact with the art and create my own image in my mind.”

THE ART OF SEEING

The startup is the brainchild of photographer John Olson, who says he wanted to help blind people experience visual art. Olson began his career as a war photographer at age 21, and was the youngest photographer ever hired to the staff of Life magazine.

Museums hire 3DPhotoWorks to give tactile surfaces to artworks in their collection. However, the company converted Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware to tactile art as proof-of-concept pieces.

To create the tactile art, Olson hired Quattrociocchi, who was designing digital printers at the time. Quattrociocchi created a printer for the startup that could provide tactile details “down to the brushstroke.”

A graphic designer replicates a painting’s brushstrokes on a computer program. When printed, the brushstrokes are several millimeters deep—large enough to be felt.

Quattrociocchi essentially reengineered a large inkjet printer to add more depth and detail. The company holds multiple patents for the technology.

The first part of the printing process requires a bit of manual work. A high-resolution, color-perfect copy of the original artwork is first uploaded to a computer. Then, a 3-D conversion specialist augments the piece by digitally adding depth so the art appears three-dimensional. For a portrait, for example, facial features become more sculpted and contoured.

The updated 2-D file is then printed at a size of 150 by 300 centimeters, at depths of up to 50 mm. Most printers allow for depths to only 5 mm.

Based on feedback from those who have touched the works, the team learned that people are more sensitive to textures than to shapes. Textures provide stronger mental images, so Quattrociocchi is working on adding greater texture to his pieces.

The works might be more vivid for those who became blind or visually impaired later in life—they’re able to recall colors and objects they’ve seen before. However, the works also can help those born blind to “see” art for the first time.

ACCESS FOR ALL

Why does 3DPhotoWorks make its tactile art pieces in color? The exhibits are for sighted people, too, Quattrociocchi notes. They also can experience the art by feeling it. And most legally blind people have some degree of vision, however slight, he adds.

The company hopes to work with science centers and zoos in the coming years, helping students learn about science, technology, engineering, and math through touch.

The original idea for the company was to develop artwork that people could buy to hang in their homes, but the process has proven too expensive. As Quattrociocchi continues to automate his approach, however, he hopes the art will become more affordable.

If you started a company and are interested in being featured in one of our upcoming issues, email the editors: institute@ieee.org.

This article is part of our June 2017 special issue on assistive tech.

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