Creating a 3D object with computer software is often the first step in producing it physically. Even with 3D modeling software that has more accessible ways of inputting designs, the visually impaired or blind still have to evaluate their work by either creating a physical version they can touch or by listening to a description provided by a sighted person.


A touch-based display mimics the geometry of 3D objects designed on a computer. The display is reminiscent of a pin art toy in that it forms shapes from a field of tall, rectangular pegs that move up and down. By inputting the specifications of their desired shape in the accompanying 3D modeling program, users can evaluate their creation via the touchable display. Whenever they alter the shape, they can command the display to render it anew. This tactile display is considered 2.5D rather than 3D because the bottom of the display doesn't change shape.

Son Kim, an assistive technology specialist for the Vista Center for the Blind in Palo Alto and co-inventor of the system, uses the tactile display to feel the shape he is creating in a 3D modeling program. (Credit: Farrin Abbott/Stanford News Service)

The system was co-designed with people who are blind or visually impaired, a process that was integral to making it address the actual needs of its users. In the end, the team produced a system that can rotate a 3D model, zoom in and zoom out on an object, and show it in split sections such as showing the top and bottom of a cup beside each other. Users can also feel the shape with multiple fingers or their whole hand, which enhances the information they can interpret from the display.


Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA


It opens up the possibility of blind people being not just consumers of the benefits of fabrication technology but able to create their own tools from 3D modeling environments.


With the success of early-stage design and testing, the researchers would like to improve the scale, affordability, and resolution of the pin display. Currently, each pin is rather large, so the display can't show much detail.