Making a fast world more accessible

Sascha Collet
Jul 24 · 6 min read

How 3D printing can help the visually impaired

A yellow tactile model that displays one room with a table and several chairs
A yellow tactile model that displays one room with a table and several chairs

The only constant in this exciting world is constant change. And it seems this change is getting faster. Technical progress and innovation allow us to work globally and from everywhere. The possibility of working from home or on the road means enormous changes in the world of work, but also holds great potential to change it for the better. For many people, this means an opportunity to participate in working life.

But rapid change also means that some people fall by the wayside. Co-working spaces and temporary meeting rooms are part of everyday working life for many, as jet set workers still have conferences or just need a place to talk sometimes. For blind and visually impaired people however, it is difficult to rent conference venues. Rooms vary not only in size and equipment, but are offered with a variety of configurations that can only be communicated visually. Depending on the event, the number of participants or the intended use, the furnishing changes. Touch models, on the other hand, are practically cast in stone without their furniture, equipment and general appearance. Therefore, they always basically represent floor plans of buildings without interior fittings. Every building is merely a shell if you only know it from the tactile model. In the end, people with visual impairments can only rely on the judgement of sighted people when it comes to assessing rooms.

The future is for everyone

We believe that progress is only desirable if it takes all of us with it. Not everyone loves to work in different places all the time, but everyone should be able to decide for themselves — regardless of physical possibilities. Since information transfer is our field of work and we also love challenges, we wanted to take on this task. In our daily business we mainly operate in a digital environment but we wanted to break through this barrier to solve a problem that we think is important and that can only be tackled in the physical world.

Myself, working on the 3D model and showing the finished product to a woman
Myself, working on the 3D model and showing the finished product to a woman

The project

The co-working-space “Tuechtig” puts a great emphasis on inclusive working and therefore a lot of thought into furniture, software and equipment to make it easier for people to participate. On their behalf, we have developed a tactile model that enables everyone to grasp spaces and even beyond — to design them on their own. We worked with a small team of experts consisting of visually impaired people and used 3D printing techniques to achieve individual results and rapid prototyping. In many workshops and brainstorming sessions, we have simplified furniture to the point where it can be produced on virtually any 3D printer.

This aspect was particularly important to us because we wanted not just to build expert knowledge, but to develop a process that would be easy for anyone to apply. The open source idea played a big role from the beginning — although we know that familiarity with 3D software is still important if you want to create your own models. But we are already planning to simplify this step for everyone. In the future, it might be possible for anyone to create tactile models from a floor plan and a few sketches. You provide the data and we just do the printing. But of course this is still a dream for the future — so back to our prototype.

A complex table and a simplified version
A complex table and a simplified version
We simplified a complex table with three heights into a printable 3D model

Durable yet variable

It is the reduction of the models that makes the real innovation possible: variability. After numerous time-consuming experiments, we were able to print strong magnets directly into the model.
By using stable but thin materials, which are glued back with thin sheet metal, we have also managed to create a tactile model that allows the representation of the current and changing situation in the room. The usage of magnets is a simple trick but in combination with 3D printing it becomes a powerful tool that will find many applications in the future. It is independent of electricity and easy to produce. And it is comparatively affordable — a very important aspect in terms of the ambition to develop a technology for the masses.

Thinking in Levels

If you look at the tactile system in its entirety, what our model does is to create further levels in addition to the classic tactile model. The foundation is the floor plan on which people can generally orient themselves in the building. On a new second level we now find the individual rooms with their actual and up-to-date furnishings. And on a final level, the 3D printing process enables us to display individual and highly variable details such as paintings and make them accessible within the room. We thus manage to depict details from the macro to the micro level that are not possible on the preceding one.

A classic tactile model with our variable model and a 3D printed Artwork hovering above it
A classic tactile model with our variable model and a 3D printed Artwork hovering above it
The tactile model, the furnished model and the 3D printed miniature artwork, that is placed next to the actual painting

Variation is key

All available pieces of furniture have a true-to-scale model correspondence — it is up to each person to determine the furnishings. Alternatively, a choice can be made between various standard configurations, which are firmly built onto magnetic plates. Thanks to 3D printing, relevant information such as sockets or ceiling lamps can also be easily integrated. For example, since our partner attaches great importance to art, the works placed in the room were displayed on the model to create a better feel for the room.

Our tactile model with two standard configurations plates and some loose furnitures hovering above it
Our tactile model with two standard configurations plates and some loose furnitures hovering above it

Our tactile model can be used not only for renting the rooms but also as a door sign, so that the current arrangement of each room can be seen and felt from the outside. The prototype is already in use and enjoys great popularity among blind and sighted people alike. Thanks to numerous requests, we are proud to make many offices and co-working spaces more inclusive in the near future. We are also working on mapping signage systems on a digital level and thus offering everyone the opportunity to prepare for orientation in space at home. This preparation is important for many people, be it because they are cognitively impaired or have to struggle with insecurity.

But we don’t want to stop here. As mentioned above, we are working on making the process itself even more accessible. On the software level, we want to ensure that those interested can take the first steps themselves and, without a professional 3D designer, create the floor plan and later also the furniture themselves and save it as a finished, printable file. At the manufacturing level, we are working to standardize models, try out materials and work with different partners to make it easier to create. Both should serve one purpose: Affordability. Inclusion is not only important when running a large co-working space — it is a mission everyone should be able to fulfill. And we hope that we can contribute to reaching this goal.

On our website figures.cc the team answers questions and offers individual solutions for specific requirements. We also welcome collaborations, so feel free to talk to us with ideas and suggestions.

This article is a collaborative work by Sascha Collet and David Elsche

Thanks to David von Buseck

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