Imagine that you had never seen Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” or Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” A simple Google search could show you both of these masterpieces in a few seconds. But now imagine that you are blind and could not see these paintings at all. Not only would you miss out on some of the world’s greatest pieces of art, but also on general cultural literacy and an important creative outlet.

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Until recently, this was the reality for the 285 million visually impaired and blind people worldwide. But now, several companies are working to change that.

3DPhotoworks

New York-based company 3DPhotoWorks, in conjunction with the National Federation for the Blind, has developed a software that allows blind people to experience paintings and drawings as fine, tactile art.

The brain can process tactile information in a remarkably similar way to visual information. This allows visually impaired and blind people to “see” an image in their heads.

The process that 3DPhotoWorks uses is simple: they scan a two-dimensional image and convert it into digital data. Next, digital conversion experts manually change some of the data to add the proper sense of depth to the paintings. This information is then sent to a 3D printer and a print is made that contains depth and contours that allow blind people to experience paintings in a similar way to sighted people. Currently, these prints allow for up to 4.5 centimeters of depth relief.

So far, 3DPhotoworks has rendered three-dimensional versions of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” as well as paintings by Van Gogh, and Emanuel Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” This is just the beginning of their efforts, though, as they intend to move into the realm of photography.

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John Olson co-founded 3DPhotoWorks over eight years ago. His background was in photography, so naturally visual images were important to him. He began to question what life was like for people who couldn’t see, and began to try to find alternatives so that the blind could experience art.

“Our goal,” says Olson, “is to make the world’s greatest art and greatest photography available to blind people at every museum, every science center and every cultural institution, first in this country and then beyond.”

The company recently tried, and unfortunately failed, to raise $500,000 through a KickStarter campaign. Though they didn’t meet their goal, 3DPhotoWorks already has several exhibitions around the U.S. and recently had a display at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

The response to the company’s efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. Blind people have heard about the world’s great painters, but they’ve only ever understood them in an abstract sense, much like vocabulary words that make little sense out of context.

Unseen Art

A Finnish company has very similar aims to 3DPhotoWorks. Unseen Art has attempted to raise $30,000 through IndieGoGo to expand their efforts to make 3D renderings of art masterpieces available to the blind.

Unseen Art is also working on a database for people to submit and download pieces of art, in an attempt to democratize art so its beauty and power can be shared by everyone. The relatively low cost of 3D printing means that they could help blind people worldwide. Their fund-raising efforts have fallen short in America, but they are still hopeful about making art available to the blind on a global scale.

3D Printing In The Future

Despite the difficulties both 3DPhotoWorks and Unseen Art have faced, the idea of tactile paintings for the blind has a hopeful outlook for the future as 3D printing becomes cheaper and more commonplace. Part of the problem they face is the lack of awareness the general public has about their services. The other issue they face is that their aims are seen as very specialized, only helping the blind. What people fail to recognize is that sighted people can experience these tactile paintings as well, and perhaps form new and interesting ideas about art for themselves. As of now, both companies are continuing to raise funds and bring the world’s greatest art to a brand-new audience.


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