Stanford University Unveils Pin Art-Like Tactile 3D Display for Visually Impaired 3D Modelers

The ShapeShift display raises and lowers pins to create a tactile 2.5D representation of a 3D-modeled object.

Gareth Halfacree
2 years agoDisplays

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a touch-based display designed to allow visually impaired people to have better feedback from 3D modeling packages: ShapeShift.

"Design tools empower users to create and contribute to society but, with every design choice, they also limit who can and cannot participate," explains Stanford student Alexa Siu. "This project is about empowering a blind user to be able to design and create independently without relying on sighted mediators because that reduces creativity, agency and availability."

In partnership with Joshua Miele, blind scientist and one of the paper's co-authors, Siu developed a means of allowing visually impaired people to receive immediate feedback as to the shape of a modeled object through touch alone — using the classic Pin Art desk top as inspiration. The system works by raising and lowering pegs to mimic the shape of a modeled object — though, as the bottom of the system doesn't change, the display is more 2.5-dimensional than fully three-dimensional.

"What really is so awesome is that I can view various perspectives of the object and not just the object in its single state," adds Son Kim, an assistive technology specialist for the Vista Center for the Blind in Palo Alto and fellow co-author. "That offers greater dimension to understanding the object that you’re attempting to make. And that’s the same opportunity that a sighted peer would have, where they too would be able to view various perspectives of their target object."

The current prototype is in need of some improvement. Despite positive feedback, the size of the pins in use limits the resolution of the display system — so the next step would, naturally, be to reduce the size of each pin and increase their number to boost the resolution and thus fidelity of the modeled object.

"I really am excited about this project," says Kim. "If it moves toward implementation or mass distribution in such a way that is cost-effective that would enable future, visually-impaired or blind designers coming out of college to have a tool, which would give that person or persons the level of accessibility to enhance their learning; it contributes to the principle of individual, universal access and promotes independence."

More information on the project, as well as an alternative project which uses smaller pins at a lower cost per-pin by using a single motor and a series of brakes rather than one motor per pin, is available on the Stanford University website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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