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3D Printing Brings Classical Artworks to the Blind and Visually Impaired

Unseen Art’s open-source project takes a hands-on approach.

From a young age, open-source enthusiast and software programmer Marc Dillon was exposed to and affected by art and technology. After years of working for Nokia in software and integration, then co-founding the mobile device and operating system maker Jolla, Dillon decided it was time to combine art and technology for a space in desperate need of innovation: how art is experienced by the visually impaired and blind.

Dillon tells GOOD that he and his current company, Adventure Club, hit upon the idea of making art accessible to the visually impaired with Unseen Art. Under this project, which recently launched an Indiegogo campaign, artists volunteer to scan, model, and 3D-print classical artworks so that they can be experienced through touch by those who can’t experience the pieces visually.

Dillon says the artists begin by working from a high-resolution photograph or scan of the painting. Then, using 3D modeling software, they create an interpretation of the classical artwork, with particular emphasis on depth and details that can really be felt by the visually impaired or blind. Artists are then able to 3D-print the interpreted work in a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, sandstone, resin, and ceramic, to name a few; they can finish it with any number of textures and treatments, like paints and glazes.

Dillon and Adventure Club are making the global project open-source. This, of course, runs counter to the 20th century’s commodifying art culture, where artworks are sold like stocks and made available only as untouchable objects at museums and select galleries.

“Our early talks with blind people and art curators called it a revolution and a game-changer to get blind people going to art galleries,” Dillon tells GOOD. “All of the artworks in this project will be made freely available as downloadable 3D files that can be printed locally at exhibition size and quality, plus being scalable to something you can put into a person’s hand or onto a wall or table.”

He adds, “We got a lot of feedback during the project that we have incorporated into guidelines for 3D artists [who] want to contribute,” and notes that “creating depth makes it easier for fingers to understand instead. Simplifying details and highlighting a perspective in the work can help create an impression of the art.”

Dillon emphasizes, however, that he would discourage artists from adding things to works that were not in the original piece. For instance, when London-based artist Caroline Delen 3D-printed the Mona Lisa, she didn’t add any depth to the back of the famous Leonardo da Vinci subject’s head.

Unseen Art is searching for a curator to organize its first exhibition. And in the future, Dillon says, the team may experiment with “dark” exhibitions, where both visually impaired visitors and those with functioning eyesight can experience art in a similar way. They may also invite contemporary artists to interpret their own works as 3D prints.

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