The Joseph Kohn Training Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a state-funded facility that teaches vocational skills to the blind and visually impaired. Old wooden maps help students navigate the halls: They are about two feet tall by three feet wide, with braille labels and hand-cut pieces crudely glued on to indicate rooms, stairs, and other building amenities.
They’re usually only hung on the walls of the three-story building when new students need to familiarize themselves with the floor plan. “Students have to memorize everything, because they can’t carry the map with them,” says Howon Lee, a mechanical engineer at Rutgers University.
But that’s finally changing. Beginning last summer, Lee and his student Jason Kim decided to give the maps a much-needed upgrade—using 3D printing.
The technology has helped architects dream up incredible structures, inspired urban planners, and even helped refugees rebuild lost landmarks. So why couldn’t it become a tool for the blind and visually impaired, who make up an estimated 285 million people globally?
Using the university’s 3D printers and modeling software, Lee and Kim recreated the maps—with some changes. The wood was replaced with durable plastic. Each floor is now mapped separately, the stack kept together with binder rings. And they’ve designed the whole thing to be the size of a small tablet, so students can carry it with them. There’s still enough space to include all the essentials, Lee notes: The map outlines all the rooms, and there’s a legend with different shapes representing bathrooms (a circle for the men’s room and a triangle for the women’s), elevators (squares), and stairways (multiple lines).
Tactile maps aren’t new. Through sounds and textures, scientists and architects have come up with a slew of designs to guide the visually impaired through transit, buildings, and even a lesson on the history of evolution. Such maps often use embossing printers to put texture onto a piece of paper. And while Lee’s and Kim’s project is certainly not the first 3D-printed map, engineers and designers are just starting to explore how the technology can applied to the needs of the blind community.