This picture is a 3D printed version of the key of forms used in my rendition of Noah's Ark. Under each recurring model is a label in braille indicating what it is. There are representations of a sun, a cloud, rain, water, and an ark.

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.

2 thoughts on “Designing Noah’s Ark in 3D”

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. We are working as part of the Tactile Picture Book Project team at the University of Colorado. The intention of this blog is to share some of the other work our design team is exploring, as well as the work of high school students we mentor. Please continue to share what you find related to 3D printing tactile pictures with us.:)

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