Windsor company raising funds to help create 3D printer for visually impaired
By Justin Prince
Note: This story was originally published on OurWindsor.ca.
A local company is raising funds to help design a new type of 3D printer that can make accurate braille code.
Tactile Vision Graphics Inc., which produces paper-based braille products and graphics, started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign yesterday to help raise the money it needs to develop a unique type of 3D printer. The proposed design would give the company the ability to label braille coding onto anything it creates. TVG has collaborated with Exemcor Inc., a Windsor-based design and 3D printing company, to design and build the machine.
The company will need to raise $15,000 within the next 35 days to help pay for the development process, according to the Indiegogo fundraising page.
“It’s off to a bit of a slow start,” said Rebecca Blaevoet, co-owner of Tactile Vision. The campaign has raised $435 so far at the time of publication. “For these Indiegogo campaigns, we need early by-in if it’s going to reach its goal … Braille is kind of one of those hard sells if people don’t know anything about braille or don’t have anybody in their life who uses it.”
Rebecca and her husband and co-owner Emmanuel Blaevoet started the campaign after their company had received multiple inquiries about printing braille code onto objects, such as building models and signs, as well as onto hard surfaces. Currently, their company focuses mainly on producing two-dimensional prints written in braille, such as instruction booklets, children’s books and maps. They use a special type of printing press to place the coding onto the pieces of paper.
In the campaign video, Rebecca explained that Emmanuel had been telling her they needed to expand into the three-dimensional tactile market ever since the couple bought the company and its Erie Street East facility six years ago.
“Because we produce on paper, people would come to us and ask ‘Could you actually produce that on hard material that I could put outside or something that I actually can bolt straight to the wall?’ (And we had to say) no, the process we use so far doesn’t allow us,” said Emmanuel in the video. “Three-dimensions are necessary to grasp the concept of depth for a blind person, but when it comes to our specific needs, there’s not a single machine that really does it the way we want it to be done.”
Rebecca explained that the couple had searched everywhere to find the exact device they needed, but were unable to find it on the open market. While there are currently ways to insert braille coding into a blueprint using various types of computer software, she noted that it would not be efficient to place each letter dot-by-dot. She also noted they could make mistakes, as there are standards for the spacing, size and depth of each letter that vary depending on the type of use. For example, the requirements for an official document are different compared to what is needed for a set of elevator buttons.
“Even if you do manage to print Braille on something, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be complying with that standard,” said Rebecca. “We have to make sure any 3D printer we get is built to our specific specifications so it fits those standards.”
In the past few years, schools such as Texas A&M University and Rutgers University have tried to develop similar machines for braille coding with some success – their projects focused on placing braille onto plastic containers and creating tactile maps for students respective though. If Rebecca and Emmanuel’s Indiegogo campaign is successful, the specialized printer would also be the first one of its kind commercially available.
“I think the opportunity (for Windsor-Essex County and TVG) is huge,” said WEtech Alliance business advisor Marco Fiori, whose technology-focused business accelerator has helped the Blaevoets for more than six months. “It’s very exciting to see how motivated they are to get this out into the world … Accessibility is a huge, huge thing right now and we’re just really glad to be able to be a part of pushing the standards to a better level.”
Rebecca also stressed the importance of allowing people who are visually impaired to have access to things like readable signs. There are currently more than 475,000 people who suffer from full or partial vision loss across Canada, according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. About 186,000 of those citizens are from Ontario.
“Without tactile and braille information, visually impaired people don’t have access to the kind of information that you take for granted,” said Rebecca, who has been blind since birth. “You (people who aren’t visually impaired) can look at the shape of a building and be able to identify exactly what that looks like. For a vision impaired person, you can touch the bricks on the side of the wall if you want to, but unless you have a tactile drawing of that building or a 3D model of that building, you have no context of where it is you’re walking into when you go in there. It’s a difference between 100 per cent of space recognition and no space recognition.”
To donate to the campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-us-bring-braille-to-everyone/#/. The fundraiser ends July 5.