3d Printers Hubble Images For The Blind
January 8, 2014

3D Printing Technology Lets The Blind Experience Hubble Images

[ Watch the Video: Will The Blind Be Able To Reach Out And Touch The Stars? ]

Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Images produced in 3D on a computer are printed onto paper and used in a variety of applications. However, though the image may look three-dimensional, it is still on a piece of flat paper. In the near future, however, this may all change so that even the blind can experience these three-dimensional images.

According to astronomers Carol Christian and Antonella Nota of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) in Baltimore, they are experimenting with transforming images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope into 3-D pictures so the blind can explore the universe through touch.

Nota says, “It's very easy to take any tool or object that you can actually measure and produce a 3-D printout. But it's very hard to think of an astronomical object about which you know very little. You can measure the sizes and brightnesses of space objects from the images, as well as some of the distances. But it's really hard to understand their 3-D structure. The work is scientific, but it's also guesswork and artistry to try to produce an object, which printed, will look like the image that Hubble has taken. So, we are basically designing the process from scratch.”

They started the project seven months ago with a small Hubble education and public outreach grant. This allowed them to purchase a 3-D printer so they can experiment on making Hubble images.

The first image they used was the bright star cluster NGC 602 which is located in an adjacent galaxy. The image shows a bright blue glow of newly formed stars inside a cloud of dust and gas. Turning the 2-D image into something the blind can visualize in their mind involves plenty of trial and error, according to the duo.

The 3-D prototype images are formed from plastic portraying the stars, filaments, gas and dust as it is shown in the Hubble image. They use raised open circles, lines and dots in the 3-D printout. The brightness corresponds with different heights - the tallest being the brightest, which are a group of open circles representing the stars.

Christian said, “Imagine making a visualization that you visually fly through, and as you fly through, first you encounter filaments, and then you see some dust and also some stars. As you fly to the back side of the cavity, you see other features. I want to represent that in 3-D and have people feel it with their fingers because they can't see it. They would be able to spatially understand where important features are relative to everything else and what the structure is. We may have to do it in layers, or we may have to do it in some other way. At this point we're jumping off the platform and seeing what happens.”

The two researchers had the assistance of software designers in developing the program for the visually impaired. Some of the individuals involved included Perry Greenfield, manager of the Space Telescope Science Institute’s (STSI) science software branch, and Noreen Grice author of several tactile astronomy books.

Greenfield’s task is to develop software by taking measurements from the Hubble images and transferring them to a 3D printer format. Grice’s task is selecting textures to represent the features of the Hubble 3D images. Grice, who has already created tactile embossed images for the blind called "swell form," will be challenged with finding textures for gas, dust and stars so the blind can accurately distinguish each object.

Prototypes have been tested on about 100 visually impaired people. “We want to make sure that they can experience the texture and correctly identify it. We were amazed during testing how quickly people identified the individual features and appreciated the complexity of the star cluster after using the printouts for a few minutes,” Christian said in a recent statement.

Greenfield agreed that finding the correct textures was difficult. “I think the important thing for blind and visually impaired people is to be able to move easily across the image, and anything that sticks up a lot gets in the way. You don't want these sudden, big obstacles. So, to represent the stars, for example, we decided to use what looks like craters. They have a very distinctive edge to them, as opposed to a flat circle.”

Grice stated that the new images will be a benefit to everyone: “When you look up at the night sky and you see the stars against a dark, velvety texture, the stars look like they are flat on the sky. But imagine that you could reach up and touch the stars up there. I think the 3D tactile images are akin to that: being able to put yourself in the object. It really takes you to a completely different level.”

Natalie Shaheen, director of education for the National Federation of the Blind, says this will open new ways for the blind to access information. “The nice thing about 3-D printing is that it's a mainstream technology. It is not specific to blindness. There are many people who want and need and have 3-D printers who are not blind. Three-dimensional technology shows that you don't have to have some blindness-specific technology necessarily in order to provide a blind person with access to information.”

“Our ultimate goal of having the 3-D image files available to everybody is for the long-term future. But you have to think big when you're doing something like this. Maybe sometime in the future you will be able to press a button and out comes the object Hubble has imaged, and you will be able to hold it in your hands,” Nota concluded.