Fishing for Recognizable 3D Printed Textures 

By Lindsey Welch

Over the summer I was selected with seven other high school students to participate in a REM summer research project.  Over the course of six weeks Jeeeun Kim and Abigale Stangl mentored a fellow high school student and I at CU Boulder.  Our goal was to 3D print two accurate textures to incorporate into tactile picture books.  We decided to focus two textures: sand and fish scales because we wanted to go with an ocean theme.  We began our project by experimenting with, a web-based semantic 3D modeling application that was in the process of being designed by the Sikuli Lab. While this application was interesting because it combines 3D modeling with code like that used in HTML, we had a limited amount of time to work on the project and needed to work in a 3D modeling program that we were more familiar with.  We decided to use TinkerCad to 3D model our designs.

Our first goal was to create a  fish scale texture.  In TinkerCad we took cylinders and tilted them.  We then patterned these to create ridges to  resemble fish scales.  Our first few attempts at printing the models failed because the tilted cylinders didn’t have enough surface area so we added a base for them to print on.  After 3D printing our first sample with ABS plastic we decided it would be best if we printed several different sizes of the same design to see which one felt the most like fish scales.

 The picture on the left shows all the different sizes and treatments of the fish scale texture. The scales are made of the top of cylinders tilted about 10 degrees and overlapped in an offset pattern. The extra small scales are a little less than a quarter of an inch (5 mm) in diameter, the small scales are about a quarter of an inch (6.25 mm) in diameter, the medium scales are about a third of an inch (8.3 mm) in diameter, the large scales are half an inch (12.5 mm) in diameter, and the extra large scales are an inch in diameter (25 mm). The picture on the right shows all the different sizes and treatments of the sand texture. The grains of sand are made of spheres partially embedded in a base to keep them all together and to allow for easier printing. The extra small grains were designed to be 1 mm in diameter which is too small for the 3D printer to print so the texture is made up of a bunch of millimeter long lines crisscrossing all over. The small sand grains are 2 mm in height, the medium sand grains are 3 mm in height, the large sand grains are 4 mm in height, and the large sand grains are 5 mm in height. The top row of textures in both pictures has no treatment and is rough to the touch. It has tiny lines that are caused by the 3D printer laying down plastic in layers. The second row of textures in both pictures has been treated with an acetone bath. Each texture is still well defined but the tiny lines from 3D printing are no longer there. The third row of textures in both pictures is treated with XTC. This smoothed out the textures and made them less well defined. The fourth row of textures in both pictures is treated with acetone vapor. This smoothed out the tiny lines a little bit, however they are still there. The final row of textures in both pictures is treated with grippy spray plastic. There are no more tiny lines and each texture is very grippy feeling.
The left picture is of the fish scale texture. The right picture is of the sand texture. From left to right in each picture we have the smallest to largest sizes. From top to bottom we have our control with no treatment, dipped in acetone, covered in XTC, put in acetone vapor, and coated with grippy spray plastic.

We then repeated the process to make the sand texture, however this time we modeled a bunch of  spheres randomly placed around a plain. Once printed, we felt the models and determined that they were too rough and would not be pleasant for a child to touch. During our experimentation we found several different ways to smooth out the rough edges on the printed material.  We chose four different methods of treatment: acetone vaporing, acetone bath, XTC, and plastic spray.

Acetone reacts with ABS plastic, melting away the rough edges.  For the acetone vapor we heated up acetone in a crock pot designated just for this project.  Then the tactile textures were suspended above the acetone pool in the vapor which reacted with the ABS plastic.  It worked well except unpredictable bubbles would appear randomly on the textures.  For the acetone baths we dipped the textures into a cup of acetone until they were smooth.  This worked very well and was very consistent as it did not produce any random bubbles and it always smoothed out the textures the same amount.

The XTC was a plastic like coating that was painted over the textures.  It smoothed out the rough edges by adding an extra, thick layer over the ABS plastic.  The plastic spray came in a can and was designed to provide better grip when sprayed on a surface.  When it was sprayed on the textures it eliminated the rough edges but left a grippy feeling which was not our goal.

After putting separate models of each size through the treatments we took the textures to the Anchor Center for Blind Children in Denver.  A teacher and mother of a blind child provided  us with input about  her experience with teaching visually impaired children.  She said they were good, but it is best for children to first feel the real thing before they feel representations of the object.

Image of four people sitting around a table, with a brailing machine and 3D printed textures.
Meeting an the Anchor Center to learn from the Teachers of Visually Impaired

In turn, during our next round of testing we got a chunk of real fish from the supermarket for sighted volunteers to feel.  With one hand they felt the real fish scales, and with the other hand they felt the modeled fish scales textures.  The volunteers told us which size and treatment of the 3D printed representations felt the most like fish scales to them.  With the sand texture they told us which one felt the most like sand paper.

At the end of our six week program we created a poster and presented our work at an expo with the other high school students from our program, and with high school students from other research programs running at the same time as ours.  I learned that it is a lot more difficult and time consuming to create recognizable textures that are pleasing to the touch than I thought it would be.  As a designer, I also learned that you can get so attached to your work that it can be difficult to listen to the advice of people more experienced than you.  I enjoy working in a lab environment because you are able to come up with many more ideas and you can bounce your ideas off other people to see if they make sense.

Poster of our REM work
Poster of our REM work


Tactile Constellations

By Claudia Daudén

Since I was a little kid I’ve always loved to lay down and stare at the sky: finding animals shapes in the clouds by day and wondering what caused all of the little lights in the night sky. One of my favorite things to do while looking into the dark sky was to spot individual stars and connect them to the constellations they belonged to–what a bliss!

I came to work in the Sikuli Lab from Barcelona (Spain) because of my interest in Human Computer Interaction. I always wanted to work on something that gave me the chance to make this a better world. When I heard about Tom Yeh’s work and the Tactile Picture Book Project I wanted to make a contribution. Allowing kids with visual impairments to discover the world around them through the sense of touch sounded amazing.

When dreaming up a project to work on with the Sikuli Lab, I thought back to my childhood and about the blissful feelings I had while gazing up into the sky. I wanted see if I could make some tangible artifact that could convey the feeling to others, especially people with visual impairments. The sky, space, and the universe is immense. One of my first design challenges was to find a way to break the concept of the sky into something more tangible. I choose to make a constellation. I thought this would be a fun way to get to know stars and their characteristics.

In the Sikuli lab we are currently developing CraftML, a web HTML-based 3D composition tool. I decided to use this tool to design a prototype of a sphere model to represent the relational size, temperature and luminosity of a single star. Although I started working on, I quickly moved to working with clay because it was hard to conceive of the actual feeling of the textures and size of the objects. I wondered, “how can I make it pleasant to touch?”. You see, real stars are made of fire and gasses–I had to find a way to adequately represent the temperature and luminocity. I started using clay to create textures made of little squares, domes and lines on the surface of a sphere. Domes were by far the most pleasant shapes to touch (like Braille). I then started wondering what it would feel like if I carved the textures into the surface of the clay. After several rounds of modeling, I found that little domes on the surface of the spheres felt the best, and conveyed the notion of luminosity the best. The larger the dome, the more light the star emits.

 Picture of spheres made with clay and plastic with textures on the surface.
Clay prototypes created while I explored ideas through the sense of touch.

With a few stars prototyped, I returned to thinking about how to represent constellations as a whole. Since Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was the first constellation I remember recognising from my childhood, I decided it should be the first one represented in CraftML too. Researching on the internet, I found the astronomical coordinates–which specify the direction of a point on the celestial sphere in the equatorial coordinate system– of the stars that make up Ursa Major. I added this characteristic to each star and created an algorithm to define their positions. Basically, this algorithm takes the correct ascension and declination positions of the star and converts them to the coordinate system used in CraftML (XYZ). This way, I could position them accordingly to their real position in the sky and create an accurate shape of the constellation.

Code made with CraftML and Javascript to define the properties of the star and calculate the coordinates from its astronomical coordinates.
Definition of the properties of the star and calculation of the XYZ coordinates
from Astronomical Coordinates with CraftML.

But something was still missing. I felt great about automatizing the process of representing constellations with CraftML but, from a user’s perspective, the task of creating a constellation lacked challenge. I started to think about how to make it more fun. I decided to convert the constellations into a set of puzzle pieces.

Working with the aim of creating 3D materials for people with visual impairments reaffirmed my belief that design is never trivial. Creating textures that allow people to feel, learn and discover things is very difficult while working with plastic. In the future I hope to experiment with how to represent more complex astronomical data in interesting tactile ways.

The puzzle consists of stars (as nodes) and connectors (lines) that a person can put together to construct the form of the constellation. I iterated the design of each stars; each star one or two holes for the connectors to fit in.   Each connector was a different shape so that the user would have to experiment to find the right shape and match the two adjacent stars together.

Pictures of a 3D printed sphere with its connector
First test of the puzzle pieces to see how to connect the stars.

Working with the aim of creating 3D materials for people with visual impairments reaffirmed my belief that design is never trivial. Creating textures that allow people to feel, learn and discover things is very difficult while working with plastic. In the future I hope to experiment with how to represent more complex astronomical data in interesting tactile ways.

Visiting Russian Libraries for the Blind & Observations about the Emerging Russian Maker Culture

By Abigale Stangl 

In the beginning of October,  I had the privilege to visit Moscow and Ufa, Russia as part of our Lab’s outreach efforts about the Tactile Picture Book Project, by invitation of the United States Embassy in Moscow.

In the Department of State, there are approximately 30 Information Resource Officers who are Foreign Service Specialists dedicated to providing online resources and information to diverse audiences in order to promote a better understanding of U.S. society, values and policies. I was invited by the U.S. Information Resource Officer in Moscow and the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate inYekaterinburg, Russia to visit the Ural region, and speak to the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind about emerging assistive technologies to support people with visual impairments, in particular 3D printing.

The goal of the U.S. Speaker Program is to provide the opportunity of citizen-to-citizen contact with Russian audiences, with the main goal of sharing professional experience of U.S. Speakers with Russian colleagues and discussing important issues of mutual interest. Through the U.S. Speaker Program, Russian audiences are offered a unique opportunity to engage and share experience with invited U.S. Speakers and receive training and ideas necessary to expand their professional knowledge and expertise. During their trip to Russia, Speakers make presentations, conduct trainings, workshops and master classes on subjects varying from rule of law and economic development to health care and the arts. Russian audiences are offered unique platforms to engage and share experience with invited US Speakers.

Two woman standing in front of a book shelf talking.
Magia Krause and Elena Zakharova at the Russian State Library for the Blind.

With the support of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Magia Krause, the U.S. Information Resource Officer, and Anna Poplavko a Program Coordinator at the Embassy arranged a 10-day program for me in Moscow and Ufa. While the primary aim of my trip was to attend the 80th anniversary celebration of the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind, my trip commenced with a visit to the Russian State Library for the Blind (RSLB) in Moscow.   Elena Zakharova, the Deputy Library Director of RSLB welcomed us and showed us around the library. The Library is equipped with a children’s book collection, an audio transcription service, braille transcription service, classrooms for teaching people with visual impairments digital literacy skills, collections of music and books, and many other resources and services. On their website, it indicates that they are “a scientific and methodological center for 72 specialized libraries for the blind of the Russian Federation.”

A book page made of felt, ribbon, embroidery, and other fabric. The page on the left is a representation of a yurt. There is a rug, a horse, and grass. A yurt is a canvas tent-like dwelling that can be moved.
A hand-crafted tactile book at the Russian State Library for the Blind.

As I was preparing to present to a group of 40 librarians about our work at CU-Boulder and about 3D printing, more generally, I noticed a collection of beautiful hand crafted tactile picture books. Similar to the American Printing House and the Typhlo and Tactus tactile picture book competitions, the RSLB runs an annual competition to help create a supply of tactile books. Elena mentioned that in Russia mass produced tactile picture books are very limited (I never learned who was responsible for the design and production). Some of the tactile books in their collection were made of foam, others were hand woven, or made of felt—I gifted them their first 3D printed book prototype, which was created by Caleb Hsu. Each of the books had an audio recording to complement the touch graphics. Elena mentioned that the materials that they develop in house are created in partnerships between a librarian (as the crafter), teachers (and their students), and psychologists (consulting).

During my presentation, many of the librarians sat listening intently, as each presentation slide was translated from English into Russian. Afterwards, Elena urged her librarians to continue to look forward, learn about new technologies, and to continue to develop creative materials to support children’s literacy. Several of the librarians raised concerns about the lack of multiple colors on the page and the rough edges of 3D printed books; I described that 3D printers can have multiple extrusion heads and are able to print more than one color. I also explained that there are various materials that are 3D printable and in time there will likely be more. Another librarian urged that we make the graphics bigger and said “these images are still for the sighted.” Grateful for this feedback, I reminded the audience that we are still in the early stage of this research and depend on librarians, teachers, parents, and other caregivers to provide feedback to our early prototypes, and better yet help us explore the potential. I hope that the librarians at RSLB will follow-up on resources I provided about TinkerCad and other 3D modeling applications, and join our effort to create a library of 3D printable tactile pictures (which currently resides on Thingiverse) .

A man standing beside a small personal scale 3D printer, sitting on a desk with a lot of wires and other crafting tools.
Vladimir Kuznetsov at MISIS demonstrating a custom built 3D printer, which can be converted into a desktop laser cutter.

Directly after the presentation at RSLB, we went to the National University of Science and Technology MISiS, and hung-out in the first Russian FabLab under the direction of Assistant Professor Vladimir Kuznetsov, with the support of Timothy O’Connor, Vice-Rector of Academic Affairs. Vladimir showed us around their new space and told us of the University’s new Master’s Degree Program “Materials & Technologies of Digital Production”.  Later, during my presentation to a group of 50 students, professors, and other community members, I presented the opportunities of using new digital technologies to make things that can have a real impact in people’s lives and the use of 3D printers as a means to critically inquire into social issues. I challenged people to see 3D printing as disruptive technology—which is not just changing the way we manufacture and produce, but how we can create new networks and social value.

According to Vladimir, right now the MISiS and the FabLab are focusing on creating its space and moving to “2.0”, meaning that it is starting to build its own fabrication tools. Upon reflection, I realized the true significance of these efforts—the act of creating environments to support project-based learning is the most fundamental example of Critical Making and evaluating how emerging technologies can transform education—and the significance of the first FabLab in Russia. Vladimir and his colleagues are also in the process of organizing Russia’s first ever Maker Faire, with support from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to occur in the spring.   I feel very fortunate to have met Vladimir Kuznetsov, with the support of Timothy O’Connor and hope to continue collaborating with making transformative spaces and practices.   I also hope that a partnership with MISiS, RSLB and the American Center at the US Embassy might form to provide librarians with the resources and support to learn how to 3D model and print. In the partnership I envision, university students might further learn about meaningful applications of the technology, and the Information Officers can continue to support digital literacy.


A view of the Moscow skyline. In the foreground of the image is a big building and in the horizon there are multiple buildings rising into the sky.
The Moscow skyline from the MISIS.

After three days in Moscow, filled with sightseeing and visiting RSLB and MISiS, I boarded a plane to Ufa, where I would attend the Conference on Library Services for the Blind in Multiethnic Regions, with library directors from across Russia. I was picked up from the airport by a kind and gregarious children’s librarian from our host library, the Bashkir Regional Library for the Blind, and brought to our hotel where I met the other librarians and we began a tour of Ufa.

A yurt made of canvas and plastic with wave symbols and flower symbols on the surface.
A Bashkir Yurt.

Transitioning from Moscow to Ufa gave me a glimpse of the diversity of Russia. Moscow is a large bustling metropolis with roadways filled with traffic, eight lane roads circling the Kremlin, large cement-block apartment buildings spanning miles, bright multi-colored and golden churches interrupting the grey sky, and with a statue on nearly every corner. I saw much juxtaposition, but left with just a slight sense of the city. Ufa, a city 850 miles from Moscow with 12 million people fewer, felt much more accessible. Driving down the main street, October Prospect, I began to see the “Multi-Ethnic” influence of the city. The region is made up people from more than 100 ethnicities; Tatars and Bashkirs make up nearly half of the million inhabitants. Mosques and churches alike lined the streets and rise into the grey sky. We went to several Bashkir monuments and a great conference halls, which overlooked a great river valley. A fairly wealthy city, Ufa is home to a long history of culture and a prosperous industrial landscape that formed as a result of WWII.A Bashkir Yurt in Ufa.

First thing the next morning I met a representative from the Russian Ministry of Culture, and my host Slavyana Sagakyan, the Director of the Information Resource Center at the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg who instigated my visit to Russia.   They shared with me information about the day’s program and the effort it took to arrange my program in Russia. Slavyana shared that part of her job is to arrange programs to create understanding about Russian and American culture, and to do this she often works with libraries. However due to frequently changing political priorities, partnerships sometimes change and programs with invited speakers are cancelled. In turn, I feel extremely grateful that the Ministry of Culture, the Bashir Library, and other governmental proponents saw the value of sharing information about accessible media and emerging technologies for the blind.

Three people standing in the entrance of a room, holding gifts as symbols of their greetings. The Director of the library is dressed in a traditional Bashkir gown.
The Director of the Bashkir Regional Library for the Blind and her colleagues welcoming guests.

Upon arriving to the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind we were greeted by the Library’s director, who was dressed in traditional Bashir dress. Upon our arrival, her Chiefs of Staff held out cups of honey tea, and the others participants directed us to tables filled with cakes made of the sweet, abundant, regional honey. Sixteen librarians from around Russia and I were given a tour of their library, their transcription services, and my favorite—the children’s library space, which was adorned with tangible objects, a ball pit, and hand made tactile picture books. My favorite book (header image) had dolls dressed in traditional Bashir clothing, which I un-Velcroed and moved along the landscape depicted in felt and other sewn materials.

We departed for a grand conference venue for the main conference, where throughout the day we heard about different services offered to people with visual impairments around Russia. Some people spoke more theoretically about the need to ensure access and celebrate culture, others discussed the challenges of actually transcribing content across communication mediums—verbal, visual, and tactile. Since I don’t speak or understand the Russian; when I got on stage for the plenary talk, I crossed my fingers that I would present something relevant to the previous conversation. In attendance were the regional librarians and university students. I amended my presentation to focus on our work at CU to help build a culture of digital designers of tactile picture books, and to understand and share the craft practices and materials specific to different cultures through our work. I also discussed the opportunity for 3D printing to create social value and bring more awareness to the need for accessible information.

After the talk, many of the students wanted to talk, maybe because they were inspired to make, or maybe because they had never met an American before. Very few people spoke English, but those who I got to know throughout the conference were very kind and curious. Throughout this trip, I felt that my role was to be part representative of the Tactile Picture Book Project, and part a representative of the U.S.A. Just as many people I met had never met an American, I have had very little exposure to Russian culture or history. Because of this trip I now understand a bit more about this great nation–great in size and resources, but also great because of the people I met.

During the conference a great celebration of the library’s 80th anniversary took place. In the evening, representatives from each library went up to the stage and presented the Director with a present for the library. Ceremoniously the director accepted each gift, and cued music or a short traditional Bashir performance. After many hours of celebrating, we returned to the hotel where a reception was set up. I found out that a Russian reception means plates filled with meat salad, beets, and pickles, and glasses filled with bottomless vodka, rounds of cheering and singing, dancing to 80’s music (which was not chosen because of the 80th anniversary), and individual salutes and shots to acknowledge each other.

A woman holding a puppet of a mouse with three heads.
A librarians demonstrating teaching materials at the library.

The next morning we gathered to visit another regional library, dedicated to children’s literacy. The library director greeted us with a table full of honey-sweetened and savory pastries and tea, and nearly 15 librarians provided us with a tour of their library and services. They showed me costumes, nesting dolls, and a variety of other playful props for their children’s programs. We saw these props being used when a group of children came in for a literacy program. In Russia there are separate boarding schools for the blind, for the visually impaired, and for the sighted. The program was designed for a group of 5-7 year old kids who have visual impairments, but are not blind. During the literacy program, the librarians led the children on an imagined adventure around the world. They traveled around the world learning about great architecture. At certain destinations the children participated in designing building, creating ruins, or capturing flowers (boys catching boys) to plant in their gardens.

Four kids putting round objects on a stick, an activity that is symbolic of building.
Children with visual impairments building a structure.

After showing the kids the 3D printed books, I asked them what their favorite books were—they readily told me “Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “My Little Poney”. American classics. Several kids also mentioned Russian classics at the prompting of the librarians. I told them I was from the U.S.A. and that we too had bears in our mountains. One kid asked “how do you protect yourself from the bears?” I started running around screaming and punching, and they all started laughing. Another girl asked how I make my books, and I told her about how I used a computer to design the book—like an architect designs a building—and then printed it out.

Nineteen people standing in rows.
A gathering of librarians and colleagues in attendance.

When the kids left, I presented our work to teachers and librarians who asked more probing questions about the quality of our prototypes and provided suggestions for how to improve them. I provided a quick demo of TinkerCad, answered questions about 3D printing, and encouraged them to try modeling. This was the first time all of these teachers and librarians heard about 3D printing, and like many of the American teachers and librarians I have met, there is a level of skepticism, yet excitement about the possibilities. After the talk at the library, Slavyana and I discussed how to arrange opportunities for librarians to have hands on experience with 3D printers—as they are rare in Ufa. (For example, there are none listed on 3dHub in Ufa, and in Moscow the cost of printing via 3dHub is high.)

Five people standing. I am holding a book in my hand.
My wonderful hosts presenting me a beautiful book of Bashkir folklore.

As my time in Ufa was nearing an end, I visited a mosque, and purchased several nesting dolls, jars of honey, and a bottle of vodka—all signifiers of my whirlwind trip and quick glimpse of Russian culture. When saying goodbye to Slavyana and Dina and my other new friends, I was also gifted a book of Bashir folklore with beautiful, screen-printed images designed by a local artist. During one of my library tours I noticed his original artwork hung on the wall and mentioned how much I loved his work. The Director of the Bashir Library found me a copy of the book and gifted it to me upon my departure.

I was thrilled to be invited as a representative of the U.S. and the opportunity to share our work on making more accessible materials through the affordances of 3D printing. I am not sure how I am so lucky to have such an opportunity land in my lap, but I hope my efforts have helped to create a community of digital makers of accessible materials, and that each person I met feels more knowledgeable about personal fabrication, and the power of making their ideas come alive.

I want to thank the U.S. Embassy and Magia, Anna, Andre, Elena, Vladimir, Tim, Dina, and Slava for making my time in Russia so enjoyable and comfortable. I also want to thank Meryl Alper and Kylie Peppler for connecting me to the US Embassy in Moscow and for all of the amazing work they do to empower people to gain digital literacy skills and to become makers!

3D Printed Tactile Picture Books Distribution

by Jeeeun Kim 

I am a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder. My PhD study has been on how to utilize rapid prototyping technologies, such as 3D printing, to design and make tactile story books for children with visual impairments. In this blog post, I want to share some of the methods I have used to create and distribute 3D printed books to a broader community.

Tactile Picture Book Contest

In 2013, I created a 3D printed tactile picture book based on “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown, a beloved children’s book, and submitted this book to the international Tactile Picture Book contest organized by Typhlo & Tactus, for the international tactile illustrated book prize. This book turned out to be the first 3D printed book ever submitted to the contest! Afterwards we received a lot of inquiries about the book from the parents, teachers, and other community members; many people emailed us to ask for a copy.

Because of the affordances of 3D printing, we were able to 3D print,  bind the pages with sticky felts and rings, and send copies out to parents, teachers, librarians, and other interested community members.

There are two images. One is of a 3D printed book page with a 3D bowl and a brush, and the second images is of the outside of the 3D printed book. It has a curtain and the number two on it.
Image 1. One page from “Goodnight Moon”, saying “Goodnight Mush, and Goodnight Brush” (left), bound in the book format with ring and soft felt cover (right).

As you might guess, we opted to distribute the books in their physical format because at the time 3D printers were not widely available. In order to process all of the requests, we 1) emailed people back to ask for their physical addresses, 2) 3D printed copies at the scale they wanted, 3) bound the 3D pages as a book format, 4) put the book in a secure envelope for the long journey 5) and sent the packaged books. As you see in the image below, during our fifth batch, we even received a request from the Kingdom of Tonga!

The number of requests to get a copy flooded in; we started to struggle to respond to everybody–despite my best efforts and many hours spent standing in line at the post offices.

This is a picture with a collection of envelopes, ready to be sent out.
Image 2. A pile of packages with a “Goodnight Moon” copy in, that will be sent to Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, UK, and Kingdom of Tonga.

Digital Distribution

As the waitlist to receive a hand bound 3D printed book from us became very long, my colleagues and I had to make a strategic decision. Recognizing that we have limited resources compared to commercial publishers or manufacturers, we decided to put the digital versions of our books on Thingiverse, the biggest online community of 3D printer users to share 3D printable models. After we uploaded all the models of our books, we informed people that they could go online to download these model files and print their own copies. For those who do not have access to a 3D printer, we referred them to a cloud printing service such as 3D Hubs, a service that matches people who need to 3D print with those who owns a 3D printer.

This is a picture of the Thingiverse website and of the entry.
Image 3. TactilePictureBooks entity page at the Thingiverse community site, sharing digital STL files of tactile picture books as one “thing” (left), an example “thing” with several different pages to construct a set of book.

Our collection of books on Thingiverse grew. Each book consists of several pages. Each page is an individual “thing” file.  We have observed that there are more than 250 downloads of the “things”, and we got some successful reports from users about their own printing experiences.

This is a picture of a 3D print, on the bed of a 3D printer.
Image 4. An image from one of our followers, printed his own copy of page shown in Image 1.

Library Circulation

Early this year, I worked with the Colorado Talking Book Library (CTBL) to create a 3D book based on Dear Zoo, an interactive lift-the-flap board book written by Rod Campbell. CTBL circulates audio recorded books and carries a small collection of tactile books for people with visual impairments. The director of CTBL wanted to add a 3D book to the library’s collection of tactile books. We visited the library to learn what the library’s requirements are for distributing physical books by mail. It was a great opportunity for us to see how current tactile books were bound. We noted that they are often bound using one ring at the top corner, which is appropriate for relatively smaller books; larger books with additive tactile materials attached were bound in the binder to prevent damage during the circulation. Also, these tactile books were often delivered together with the originals to provide sighted parents with literary references and to respect copyrights.

There are three images showing different binding types.
Image 5. Different types of Library binding for tactile picture books delivery. Binding with one ring at the top corner(left), binding with a binder(middle), and binding with a spring with original book (right).

When we delivered the 3D printed books to the library, they were put in a delivery box which looked a lot like a pizza delivery box, which safely keeps the tactile form of the book in sturdy walls to hold inner contents. (We made sure to print the book as big as possible, using the box as our guide for size.) Also, we made a wall cover to hold movable parts in the case safely, which the CTBL librarian suggested.

There are three pictures of the book as it is getting ready to be sent off. The first is of the book, the second is of the plastic box, and the third is of the materials ready to be sent.
Image 6. 3D printed lift-the-flap book of DearZoo, bound in a big binder, and put it a black delivery box.

As we move forward, my colleagues and I are still figuring out how to share the results of our research efforts on transcribing visual information into tactile formats, the design of new accessible information, and ways to readily reach the broader community. In order to broaden our efforts, we created a group of “3D accessibility” in Thingiverse, hoping all caretakers including practitioners, designers, educators, and parents can access the community’s efforts to create accessible pictures and learning materials, and share their own content, customized copies of pre-existing models, feedback about others designs, and help build resources on design considerations.

Designing Noah’s Ark in 3D

by Caleb Hsu

The Sikuli Lab has been working to build a library of 3D printable tactile picture books for children with visual impairments to complement the supply of traditionally designed and produced tactile graphics. Currently a junior in computer science, I joined the project my freshman year and have had the opportunity to participate in both the crowdsourcing groundwork and the development of the research itself.

To the best of my knowledge, the only tactile version of Noah’s Ark for visually impaired readers is created with thermoform technology, which involves heating a plastic sheet with a mold to create a shape.  I looked forward to the prospect of 3D modeling and printing a new rendition of this classic story as part of our lab’s research on the feasibility of using 3D printers to make accessible tactile pictures.

When I considered modeling the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, I was not particularly daunted because it was such a familiar story. As a child, I had learned much of it by heart through church lessons, illustrated copies of the picture books, and playing with my own well-loved fabric ark toy. The process began with sketching out a storyboard that divided the events into eight pages. As I began transcribing the sketches into 3D models, however, I was forced to re-examine my interpretation of what it meant to create meaningful tactile pictures.

The purpose of tactile pictures is not necessarily to create something aesthetically pleasing, but tactilelypleasing. This can mean a number of things: for instance, the progression of tactile objects on a page needs to be logical to the visually impaired reader, and the ideas on each page must be simple enough to be conveyed concisely…but cohesive enough to tell a story. Rather than having the artistic freedom to fill a page with minute details, each scene needs to be reduced to the essential elements of a concept, whether to represent “building an ark” or “animals boarding the ark” or “a flood”.

At a workshop on tactile pictures last year, a group of TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired) explained that visually impaired children often build their understanding through partial representations of a whole. For instance, a car is reduced to a wheel, or a tree becomes a leaf in a process that aims to teach these children about our world.

In my own designs, I chose to split the story of Noah into seven distinct scenes: building the ark, gathering food, animals boarding the ark in pairs, the rain/flood, the ark at rest, the dove and olive leaf, and finally the rainbow of God’s promise to never flood the earth again. The eighth page became a key to help identify common models throughout the story (such as the sun or the ark). The modeling itself was done using CraftML, an XML-style 3D modeling markup language in development at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Among other things, CraftML allows users to quickly reuse models made by others to compose picture book pages.

Image 1: First iteration of the first page. Here, the model of the sun and hammer are positioned above several lines of braille, with no distinction between the image and text areas.
Image 1: First iteration of the first page. Here, the model of the sun and hammer are positioned above several lines of braille, with no distinction between the image and text areas.

While considering how a reader might interact with the page, I realized that it could be difficult to feel a clear distinction between the models and the text because they were all lying on the same plane in rather close proximity. A colleague suggested creating a reusable page frame that would tactilely differentiate the picture space from the text space. This frame was easily adopted for the remaining pages due to its auto-scaling functionality.

Image 2: Second iteration of the first page. The tactile picture is enclosed by a frame on which the text lies.
Image 2: Second iteration of the first page. The tactile picture is enclosed by a frame on which the text lies.

At this point, the page had reached its near-final form, but there remained the issue of long blocks of braille on each page. As a result, sentences were reduced to captions to conserve space and accommodate younger braille readers.

 Image 3: Final iteration of the first page. A sun is positioned in the upper-left, under which are a hammer and two nails in line. The modeled picture is enclosed by a frame that is labeled with a braille caption on the bottom.
Image 3: Final iteration of the first page. A sun is positioned in the upper-left, under which are a hammer and two nails in line. The modeled picture is enclosed by a frame that is labeled with a braille caption on the bottom.

The process of designing these tactile pictures has been a rather humbling experience. In retrospect, I am struck by how deeply concerned the TVIs were with the individual needs of each child, because the creation of the tactile picture book for Noah’s Ark required some relinquishing of my own personal agenda. Instead of making a model that was beautiful and interesting to a pair of eyes, I was learning to consider the needs of others in an attempt to make something useful and educational to a pair of hands.

 (top) Image 4: Printed version of first page, which contains a hammer and nails, located under the sun. (Bottom) Image 5: Printed page depicting ark on floodwaters during rain.
(top) Image 4: Printed version of first page, which contains a hammer and nails, located under the sun. (Bottom) Image 5: Printed page depicting ark on floodwaters during rain.

Noah’s Ark on CraftML
Modeled pages are open source. Feel free to modify, customize, and print your own copies.


By Abigale Stangl

I am excited to tell you about the launch of 3Da11y.INFO! 3DA11y = 3D A(ccessibilit)Y (there are 11 letters between the A and Y). This is a blog dedicated to contributing to a community effort to share information about the emerging opportunities in the domain of 3D Accessibility.

I am a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder and was inspired to further develop the 3Da11y initiative after a collaborative forum led by Benetech in June 2015. During this event,  a group of students, makers, assistive technology specialists, teachers of the visually impaired, librarians, and museum representatives gathered to discuss the emerging opportunities spanning the fields of 3D printing technology and services, accessible education, tactile learning modalities, and library and museum services.

I participated in this forum as a representative from the University of Colorado and shared my experience with 3D accessibility. Over the past two years I have been working on the Tactile Picture Book Project to understand the opportunities and challenges of designing 3D printable, accessible tactile pictures.

Benetech’s 3D Printing and Education Forum marked a new era in the domain of accessible media by giving us an opportunity to build a community of participation. During the forum, we collectively landed on a set of common objectives (that have been in the air for quite some time) that we will use to drive the community’s work forward:

  • Developing technical standards for the use of 3D printers in accessible education
  • Developing curriculum to support all students use of 3D fabrication technologies
  • Developing guidelines for how to manage 3D printable digital asset
  • Developing mechanisms to measure the success within the community
  • Creating shared resource lists

In the upcoming months, I will be working with my collegues to continue the momentum of the Benetech forum and help catalyze a culture of participation around 3D Accessibility through the blog.

Are you working on 3D accessible media? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please contribute blog posts by sending an email to

Upcoming Posts:

  • September 30th, 2015- Designing Noah’s Ark, by Caleb Hsu
  • October 14th, 2015- Reverse Engineering the Tactile Experience, by Jeeeun Kim
  • October 28th, 2015- Tactile Constellations, by Claudia Dauden
  • November 11, 2015- 3D Printing as a Medium for Information, by Tom Yeh
  • Future: Please share your ideas with us!