3D-printing accessibility exhibits research

MCN 2020 Presentation, Accessible Touch Objects

Last week, I gave a presentation on accessible touch objects in partnership with my colleague Lauren Race from the NYU Ability Project. Our talk was part of the MCN2020 virtual conference. Here are the highlights and links for further reading.

Defining the problem

Most information at museums and historic sites is presented visually, but some people learn through tactile exploration. For accessibility, we need to be considering all senses when presenting information at museums.

Yet, tactile access has faced looming threats, notably the lack of expertise and funding, before Covid-19, and the current pandemic is accelerated these issues.

Some museums have responded to Covid-19 by closing hands-on exhibits with tactile components. For example, the Please Touch Museum extended its closure into 2021.

Knowing that touch objects are threatened, it is important to determine which are worth saving in the future.

Summarizing the research

Lauren described interviews that she conducted with 15 museum access specialists from art museums and historic sites across the United States. Then she considered common themes from their responses in conversations with 6 accessibility experts who are blind or have lo vision.

There are 4 findings.

•            1. Tactile experiences must be preserved

•            2. They should be consistently created

•            3. They read as infantile when poorly-crafted

•            4. They cannot be replaced by audio (verbal description) or digital-only solutions. People who are blind receive touchless experiences secondhand, filtered through the observations of a sighted person.


We made the following recommendations.

•Tactile experiences must be preserved

•Digital fabrication over poorly-designed techniques

•Provide tactually accurate reproductions

•Choose materials that can withstand frequent cleaning

•Establish tactile design guidelines

For my section of the presentation, I discussed ways to preserve tactile access despite Covid-19. I described my other projects that complimented Lauren’s interview findings.

People are problem solving in the moment. When the pandemic began, I had ongoing conversations with tactile artists about ways to safeguard tactile access.

Two colleagues, Ann Cunningham, and Matt Gesualdi and I identified specific examples drawn from our work that we proposed as models for safe practices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We described this work in a blog post for the American Alliance of Museums.

Staying in touch: addressing concerns to allow tactile exploration at museums

 I will summarize with this quote.

“We imagine a scenario where visitors could borrow tactile handouts, use them for reference as they tour an exhibit, and then return them to the museum for treatment and later re-use.”

That blog post included photos of small- and large-scale examples of tactile handouts. At small scale, the 3D-printed replica of a stone spear point can be manipulated with one hand. The attached wooden coin is a QR code that when scanned directs a smartphone to read more information about it such as might be found on an exhibit label.

At larger scale, people can be encouraged to maintain physical distance as they explore separate tactile panels. This idea is loosely based on an interactive art installation titled “Mission to Nocterra,” created by Matt Gesualdi. He incorporated use of antibacterial wipes into the exhibit with a story line that the puzzles were alien artifacts that must be protected from human germs.

Highly-skilled tactile artists can create accurate tactile reproductions using hand-crafted techniques. These individuals plan and construct their work very carefully and they account for scale and accuracy. With questions of high-fidelity in mind, we ranked different techniques by their cost in the same blog post.

Returning to Lauren’s interview findings, we recommend digital fabrication methods such as 3D printing over poorly-designed, hand-crafted techniques. In our opinion, digital fabrications are preferred for the accuracy of tactile reproductions. This is contrasted with the analog nature of most poorly-designed tactile objects that her interview findings indicated were produced by interns or volunteers with no training in tactile design.

Due to Covid-19 and safety concerns, we recommend fabricating touch objects from materials that can withstand frequent cleaning. This would favor plastic or acrylic resin commonly used to fabricate 3D-printed replicas.

We mentioned other work that supports accessible touch objects. Fortunately, we are not the only people seeking ways to safely conduct tactile exploration. Here is an international example.

Tactile Studio posted their proposed solutions including the development of a tactile sanitation station for touch objects.

I am encouraged by these proposed solutions because the work to preserve access to tactile objects in museum exhibits is ongoing and it will require sustained efforts in the Covid-19 era and beyond.

3D-printing accessibility

Tactile Access and The 3D-printing Process

This post discusses the 3D printing process and its potential to enhance tactile experience for blind people. There is a critical resource shortage where tactile graphics are concerned, and 3D printing is a technology that can help to bridge the gap. I strongly encourage the interested reader to access the resources linked here for more details.

Robert Jaquis Writing in the Braille Monitor (April 2012), explained the problem this way. “Sighted students have access to a wide variety of images in books, videos, and the Internet, but blind students must rely on text or verbal descriptions or the occasional tactile graphic.”

He explained that tactile 3-dimensional replicas are particularly useful for conveying the shape of exceedingly small, or extremely large, objects. I strongly agree with this statement.

Once, I examined a 3D-printed replica of the DNA helix. It was about 2 inches long, and I held the replica in one hand tracing the spiral shape with the fingers of my other hand. In that moment, I finally understood the description of the DNA molecule as a “twisted ladder”.

I am sure that I had read or heard the words “spiral” and “ladder” used to describe the structure of the DNA molecule before examining the 3D-printed replica. However, I did not intuitively make the connection between the description of the DNA molecule and the physical spiral shape of the double helix until I had time to explore a tactile representation of it.

I will return to this powerful idea near the end of this post. For now, I will discuss the 3D printing process and link to examples of projects that can increase tactile access for blind people.

An Overview of the 3D-Printing Process

There are three steps to producing a 3D-printed replica of an object.

•            Scanning the physical object and saving data in a digital file

•            Creating a 3D model of the object

•            Sending the 3D model to a printer that creates a physical replica of the object

In this process, a physical object is converted into a digital model that can be viewed on a screen. Tactile access can only be achieved by sending the 3D model to a 3D printer that produces a physical replica of the object.

Many individuals and organizations have completed the first two steps of the process—scanning objects and using that data to create 3D models of the scanned objects. The models can be viewed online or downloaded to be sent to a 3D printer.

Check out my post about finding 3D models on the web.

Notes About the Accessibility Challenges of Using 3D Modelling Software

Computer-aided design (CAD) software lets people create   3D models.

In some instances, blind people who access computers with screen readers, that provide voice output, can access features of these CAD software packages from a text-based command line.

For example, OpenScad is a free software package for creating 3D models. Claire Kearney-Volpe  created this curriculum that shows how some features of the software package can be used with a screen reader.

Here is another useful resource for learning OpenScad. link

However, researchers at Stanford’s Shape lab wrote this paper Explaining one drawback to using OpenScad.  Although The program has a text-based command line for inputting measurements, the output is displayed as a visual graphic on a computer screen. These researchers prototyped a design in which a blind person receives a tactile representation of the model on a refreshable braille display connected to the computer.

The team at Tactile Universe uses a different CAD software package called Blender to create and print their 3D models. Read these technical blog posts to learn more about their process.

A quick google search indicates that people can create 3D models in Blender using the python programming language. Read this manual for instructions.

Not all cad software packages have functionality with a screen reader. In my opinion, Tinkercad  is not accessible because there are many unlabeled buttons on the home page. The designers did not label their buttons properly with alt-text, and so I did not create an account or evaluate their 3D modelling tools.

Printing 3D Models and Creating Physical Objects

Blind people benefit from the last stage of the process when a 3D model becomes a physical object that can be touched.

To do this, the 3D model is exported to a stereolithographic (STL) file that contains detailed instructions for the material to be extruded by the printer.

Here is a step-by-step guide for exporting a 3D model into an stl file.

Here are two more examples of how 3D printing can be used to increase tactile access for blind people.

Mike kolitsky wrote this paper that showed how 3D printing can be used to create physical replicas of digital learning objects, so blind students can have access to visual material presented online as images. Examples of 3D Prints made from 2D photos are at the end of his paper.

More recently, two co-authors and I wrote a paper describing another way to access information about 3D replicas. We attached QR codes to 3D-printed replicas of stone projectile points (arrowheads). Scanning these QR codes with a smartphone prompted the user to access a webpage with more information about each projectile point.

I know that many people are exploring the educational benefits of 3D-printing, and I expect to learn of other projects in the future. Meanwhile, I hope that the resources that I have gathered here will be useful in this endeavor.

3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications research

Designing an Exhibit of 3D-Printed Replicas

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Designing a portable museum display of Native American stone projectile points (arrowheads) to ensure accessibility and tactile quality written with Joe Nicoli and Donald Winiecki  in the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research.

We describe making 3D-printed replicas of artifacts found in the collections of the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory. Then we prototyped a design that attached QR codes to the replicas by a lanyard.

Scanning these QR codes with a smartphone prompted the user to access a webpage with more information about each artifact. Participants at a Tactile graphics conference were successful in scanning the QR code with their smartphones and following the link to the associated webpage.

I also included this project in another paper about using smartphones to access information about exhibits. Start by reading this blog post from April 2020 to learn more.


Finding 3D models

This post is part of an ongoing series covering aspects of 3D printing from scanning objects, to creating digital 3D models, and then printing the digital files as physical 3D replicas. As I explored this topic, I collected links to many outstanding resources.

•            People who have access to a 3D printer can browse online libraries for downloadable files.

•            People who do not have access to a 3D printer can check out organizations that will print and ship 3D-printed replicas to them.

online libraries containing digital 3D models

Here is a list of online libraries that offer 3D models downloadable as digital files that can be sent to a 3D printer. Many of these links were recommended by members of the Tactile Art and Graphics Specialist, TAGS mailing list during December 2019. Thanks everyone!

Sites that offer 3D models in multiple categories



My Mini Factory

3D models uploaded by specific organizations

Some organizations maintain online libraries of models that are specific to their area of expertise.

NASA offers printable models of space craft including rockets, rovers, shuttles, and the International Space Station. For more information, read this post about searching the NASA library for a model of the Perseverance Rover.

The Smithsonian 3D digitization database contains models of many different objects from animal skulls to presidential portraits, and much more. The models can be viewed onscreen or downloaded as printable files.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers biomedical 3D printable files and 3D printing resources.

organizations that will print and ship 3D-printed replicas

Some services will print and ship 3D replicas to individuals upon request. The examples below highlight paid, or free, models.

The Shapeways marketplace offers prints searchable by category including jewelry, phone cases, tabletop game accessories and more. The company uses industrial-grade printers and offers models in several types of plastic or other materials like steel, bronze, brass, silver, gold, wax, porcelain, or aluminum.

Kraftwurx Is a company that serves 3D designers. It lets them upload files, specify materials, and order prints that can be sent to their customers.

See3D  is a non-profit organization that organizes the printing and distribution of 3D printed models for people who are blind.

final thoughts

Many organizations maintain online libraries of 3D models. Some make downloadable files available, and others also ship physical 3D-printed replicas. Anyone seeking a specific model can search the sites listed here or search the web for other sources.


Mars 2020 Perseverance and finding 3-D models

This morning I streamed the Mars 2020 Perseverance launch on NASA TV. Just after lift off, they asked one of the scientists to explain the equipment that was attached to the rover, and she pointed out the drilling arm on a 3D-printed replica. Naturally, I wondered how the public, and especially blind people, might be able to get their hands on such a replica.

I collect links to online repositories that store the computer files necessary to produce 3D-printed replicas, so I directed my browser to NASA’s list of printable models.

I sorted the models alphabetically by name and I found the M2020 Model Rover Perseverance. This page includes links to download the print-ready .STL files and assembly directions to create a model of the Perseverance rover.

The NASA repository also includes files for a small helicopter called Ingenuity that is attached to the Perseverance  rover.  It will be flown on MARS sometime after landing in February 2021.

I’m glad that NASA made files available so that anyone with access to a 3-D printer can produce replicas. I realize that not every blind person, or member of the public generally, has access to a 3D printer, and that may be the subject of a future post.

3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications

Creating Re-Usable Tactile Handouts

I’m pleased to announce publication of a guest post on the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) blog about creating tactile handouts. Special thanks go out to my co-authors, Ann Cunningham and Matt Gesualdi, for their contributions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating new norms that discourage touching all manner of objects to curtail the spread of the virus. However, when public spaces reopen, understandable concern about disease transmission may lead museums to prohibit tactile exploration of objects, creating an unintended access barrier for people who are blind. We imagine a scenario where visitors could borrow tactile handouts, use them for reference as they tour an exhibit, and then return them to the museum for treatment and later re-use.

Read more on the AAM website.

3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications research

museum information on cell phones

The smartphones that many of us use daily have the ability to receive content about museum exhibits. People who are blind or have low vision can use their preferred accessibility settings on their personal devices to access content in museum exhibits. I presented work on this topic at the MW20 conference. Here is the link to my paper.