3D-Printed Maps Are Helping the Blind and Visually Impaired

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Undergraduate Jason Kim and mechanical engineer Howon Lee with their 3D-printed map for the students of Joseph Kohn Training Center. (Cameron Bowman/Rutgers University)

This new way of mapping the built environment has the power to reimagine how the blind and visually impaired navigate new places.

The Joseph Kohn Training Center in 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?

Close up of map

A close-up of a 3D-printed map of Joseph Kohn Training Center. (Cameron Bowman/Rutgers University)

 

To read Linda Poon’s article in its entirety, we encourage you to check out The Atlantic’s City Lab here.

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