How 3-D Printing Could Help The Blind "See" Paintings

These Harvard undergrads are working on technology to translate paintings into something more sculptural.

Constantine Tarabanis, a Harvard sophomore, is sighted. But back in Greece, where he grew up, Tarabanis worked with the visually impaired community for several years, volunteering at a school for the blind in Thessaloniki. Tarabanis became close friends in particular with a young man named George. Close enough, in fact, that Tarabanis began to feel a gulf when trying to communicate experiences only a sighted person can have—like seeing a painting, for instance.

Tarabanis had George in mind last semester when a roommate came back from a class carrying several 3-D printed objects. The light bulb went off: what if there was a way to use 3-D printing technology to somehow "translate" paintings into a form the blind could appreciate?

Tarabanis and several other roommates began applying themselves wholeheartedly to the idea (never mind that Tarabanis is ostensibly a molecular and cellular biology major). They began to design a system that would create "tactile representations of paintings," Tarabanis tells Fast Company. Using a combination of computer aided design software and 3-D printing technology, Tarabanis and his partners believe it should be relatively easy to create what he calls "two-and-a-half-D models" of paintings. You would "protrude the image," he says—similar to the sculptural technique known as relief.



They called their idea "Midas Touch," evoking the tactile nature of the project, while also paying homage to the Greek heritage of Tarabanis and one of his partners on the project, Vaios Triantafyllou. (Other members of the team are Rishav Mukherji and Aaron Perez; all are in Harvard's class of 2015.)

Representations of the "Mona Lisa" or "Starry Night" already line the walls of art aficionados everywhere, in poster form. Tarabanis’s team wants to bring the age of mechanical reproduction of art to the blind as well. Two-and-a-half-dimension paintings could form part of the special education wings of museums, or even accompany textbooks on art for the blind. Currently, says Tarabanis, much art education for the blind is often, understandably, somewhat rote—remembering if Michelangelo preceded Da Vinci, or vice versa. "It’s like learning by heart," says Tarabanis, "without a real understanding of what it is."

Tarabanis’s team recently won some seed money to develop their idea further; they’re now finalists in the Harvard Deans' Challenge for Cultural Entrepreneurship, hosted by the university’s Innovation Lab. "These proposals create new ways to break down barriers between artists and businesses so the arts can continue to flourish in our global society," challenge co-chair Diana Sorensen said in a release presenting Midas Touch and its fellow finalists.

As finalists in the Harvard challenge, the Midas Touch team has already scooped up $5,000 in funding (should they win the grand prize, they’ll wind up with $75,000). They’ve begun ordering materials with the money and hope to have a working prototype of their design in early May.

"You go online and see people 3-D printing a gun," says Tarabanis. "We’re wondering why people would be allocating resources this way when there’s clearly a more socially responsible way this technology can be used." In fact, the Midas Touch team thinks 3-D printing is just the beginning when it comes to translating paintings into something the visually impaired can appreciate. The team is also interested in creating pressure-sensitive regions that would furnish audio commentary when pressed.

Over Christmas break, Tarabanis returned home to Greece, where he hit up his friend George. He pitched him Midas Touch. "The thing I was most happy about," says Tarabanis, "is he seemed really excited about it. He himself wanted to test the idea." Seeing that excitement was all Tarabanis needed to press forward.

Tarabanis sometimes likes to cite a quote by Esref Armagan, a congenitally blind Turkish man who, remarkably, taught himself to paint. "I do not know if the things I make are beautiful," he once said, "I only know the reactions of others."

Midas Touch, says Tarabanis, "would help him understand why his paintings are beautiful."

[Top image: Evgenia Eliseeva. Inset image: Flickr user styeb]

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