4 Jul 2014

3D Printers Bring New Vision to Picture Books

Post by Helaine Becker

Once in a Blue Moon (or in this case, a Goodnight, Moon),  all your fields of interest wind up coinciding. Or coalescing,as the case may be, into one giant, brilliant hyperbang of kidlit, science-y marvelousness.

This happened to me today when I opened my browser and read about a new development in the world of technology. Or should I say in the world of children's literature? Or...Eureka! Both!

Last year, I had the great good fortune and honour to be a judge at the CNIB's Braille Writing Contest for Children.

At the CNIB Braille Writing Contest award ceremony,
 with winner Julia Jantzen, here shown typing
on a  laptop with a refreshable braille keyboard

I learned so much. From the kids, and from the incredible staff at the CNIB, who have developed dozens of ways to help the blind people they represent live the fullest and most productive lives possible. 

And I also learned about the challenges faced by the CNIB and its library:

The inevitable and unremitting need for funding. 

The fact that their constituency is literally coast to coast to coast - a tough reach for a library. 

And the fact that most of us out here in the sighted world have no clue about how to accommodate blind kids, or even that we need to. 

One perfect example was presented to me by CNIB Librarian Karen Brophey. She described exactly how much work goes into making sure her library can participate fully in the TD Summer Reading Club  (kicking off RIGHT NOW across Canada). 

According to the CNIB, ten per cent of Canadians have disabilities that prevent them from reading traditional print (this includes visual, physical and learning disabilities), and over 550,000 of these readers are children. Without specially designed activity sheets, and braille and audio versions of the books, blind kids can't read and play and enjoy the Reading Club the way their sighted peers can.  Yet these kids fall off the radar of most libraries - public librarians simply don't see them (ironic, eh?)

Thanks to the CNIB, kids across the country can participate in the TD Summer Reading Club using the tactile and audio materials they develop.They make selected works for the program available in alternate formats like braille and audio books. They create program materials like tool kits and inclusive activity ideas. And CNIB staff reach out to over 900 public libraries across Canada to provide training on how to implement the accessible reading club in local libraries.

Now let's circle back around to my Eureka moment: my discovery of the hot-off-the-press technical innovation of 3D-printed tactile picture books. Thanks to new technology, visually-impaired kids who until now were deprived of the full joy of reading a picture book suddenly can. They can feel the cow jumping over the moon in Goodnight, Moon,  and touch the bowl of mush, and the old lady whispering hush. They can participate fully in the magic of illustrated books on their own.

3D-printed tactile pages from Goodnight, Moon. Image from UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO CASEY A. CASS/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO
Tom Yeh, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado's Department of Computer Science who directed the 3D picture book project, says, "The idea of tactile picture books is not new. What is new is making 3D printing more accessible and interactive so parents and teachers of visually impaired children can customize and print these kinds of picture books in 3D."  To reach that goal, Yeh and his team integrate computer technology and mathematical diagrams to produce books kids can feel. "This project is much more difficult than I envisioned, but it also is much more rewarding." 
The Tactile Picture Book project has so far produced touchy-feely versions of Goodnight, Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Cat in the Hat and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. More are undoubtedly on the way. But even more important, as the price of 3D printing comes down, people will be able to print their own tactile books, customized to each child's unique needs. 
Now THAT's why I shouted Eureka at my laptop this morning. Thanks to science, more kids can be given the chance to fall in love with reading. And through reading, maybe to fall in love with science...
Coincidentally, this year's theme for the TD Summer Reading Club is Eureka!  
I couldn't have said it better.
For more on the Tactile Book project, and to see pictures of Harold and the Purple Crayon  in 3D, go here 

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