3 Ways 3-D Printing Is Aiding The Visually Impaired

3-D printing, even in our world of rapid technological advancement, is still a relatively new technology. While its origins date back to the mid-eighties, the first commercially available 3-D printer wasn't introduced until 2013.

3-D printing has been hailed as the "4th Industrial revolution" and has established a wide variety of possibilities in science and medicine. In thefield of ophthalmology, this technology is allowing those with visual impairments to experience the world in ways that were inconceivable just two decades ago.

1. Creating Artificial Eye Constructions For Children

A recently innovated 3-D printing technique could help children with microphthalmia and anophthalmia lead more normal lives. Microphthalmia and anophthalmia are extremely rare conditions in which children are born with underdeveloped or missing eyes. These conditions, which can occur in one or both eyes, affect more than 10 percent of blind children worldwide and as many as 30 in 100,000 children, according to previous studies.

Technically, the 3-D-printed eyes don't help children to "see", but the presence of an artificial structure allows their faces to develop normally and proportionally. Additionally, as the children grow, 3-D printing allows the eyes to be replaced as needed thanks to its affordability, turnaround time, and customizable sizing.

While the studies of this process are preliminary, this technology, and its effects on the children with these conditions, holds great promise.

2. Touchable Works of Art/Touchable Memories

If you’ve ever closed your eyes and had someone try to describe an object, or had someone explain a memory, you know that it just isn’t the same as seeing it for yourself. Now imagine going blind later in life from injury or disease. For those who were heavily invested in the arts, or even artist themselves, this can be especially bittersweet. However, 3-D PhotoWorks, headed by former Life photographer John Olson, has developed a printing process for works of fine art.

“It’s a three-step process, in which we, in step one, take any conventional two dimensional image and convert it to 3-D data. Once that data has been converted, we send it to a machine that sculpts the data out of a block of substrate. It gives that image length, width, depth and texture. And once that’s been sculpted it goes through a printing process where we lay the image back down on top of the relief in perfect registration. So, what you end up with is a three dimensional print that has length, width, depth and texture,” said Olson.

Another company is using this technology to help blind individuals re-experience their memories.

"Experiencing memories is like a gust of wind," says one of the subjects in the video below. While photos remain tangible, their contents, as well as the memories associated with them, become lost. By faithfully recreating photos into objects that can be felt, once hazy memories can be re-experienced. Just as braille was invented to help the blind share and absorb information more easily, Touchable Memories is helping the visually impaired relive their most treasured moments. Check out their Youtube video here:

3. Maps

Getting around, even for those who have GPS and no visual impairments, can be difficult for anyone. That's why engineers are combining 3-D printing with geographical information to help the visually impaired. While the concept isn't new, braille on paper can wear quickly, losing important information. 3-D printing the braille in durable plastic however, increases longevity and ensures that they will provide accurate information for much longer.

The key to 3-D printing's potential and promise lies in the very nature of its existence. It carries an implication that something can be seen, felt, and experienced beyond a two-dimension plane. Ultimately, it allows the loss of sight to be accommodated by the engagement of the other senses, creating ways for the visually-impaired to more fully experience the world.