Rutgers professor, student create braille map for visually impaired students
An academic trip to South Korea has morphed into a project to provide visually impaired students with 3-D-printed braille maps.
When giving a seminar on his research on 3-D printing, Howon Lee, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the host of the seminar introduced him to some of their outreach activities using 3-D printers.
“One of the interesting things that I found there was that they used 3-D printers to develop educational materials for children (who are) blind and visually impaired,” Lee said.
When children start to learn letters, they usually rely on pictures, Lee said. But kids without sight do not have the means to do so. The 3-D printers produced related materials, such as a 2-D apple silhouette marked with braille saying “apple.”
After researching schools for blind children for his project, Lee found the Joseph Kohn Training Center, which is the only training center run by the state of New Jersey.
Because students do not stay long at the training center — typically only two weeks — they need to learn their surroundings as quickly as possible so they can focus on their training, Lee said.
“Every time they navigate the building, they have to go specifically to the place where the map is found (on a wall), and they have to touch the wall,” Lee said. “Imagine how difficult it is to memorize everything — you cannot just carry that map with you.”
Jason Kim modeled the maps using computer aided design (CAD) software, he said. Kim is a School of Engineering senior who assisted Lee with the project. The computer models were then processed and printed using the department’s 3-D printer.
Some difficulties with putting the maps together included the 3-D printer’s capabilities, such as object size, can affect how well the printer can print and how small of a feature the printer can resolve, Kim said.
“We can model anything on a computer, but that doesn't mean a 3-D printer can print exactly that,” Kim said. “So I had to be cognizant of the printer's abilities and make sure that the features on the map could be discerned by users.”
Lee and Kim also had to learn braille in order to organize and follow through with the details of the project.
“I wanted to do something for the blind and visually impaired, but I had no idea (how to read) braille, and neither did (Kim),” Lee said.
A new standard for the tactile language released several months ago also posed issues for the project, he said. The system had to be modified to accommodate the changes.
The map is useful for students, similar to how GPS assists people who are driving, he said.
“About 10 years ago or so when I learned how to drive, I had a hard time memorizing all the paths of my town, so I had to learn the map, and then later on, GPS came out, and it helped me a lot and actually gave me freedom to move and then navigate and go places without worrying too much,” Lee said.
The map is similar because it aids these students in the navigation of their surroundings, he said.
The reception from students using the braille maps was positive, Kim said.
The project is a pilot for other ideas that use 3-D printed learning materials, he said. Their hope is that the success of these braille maps will generate interest in the topic for others to get involved.
“Of course, this small map is only for the small building at the training center, but maybe we can expand this project to the city of New Brunswick or (the) New Brunswick campus so blind students can really walk around and move from one place to another without worrying too much,” Lee said.
Samantha Karas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and English. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakaras for more.