3D portraits change students’ perspective at Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — When you walk through the halls of any school, you’ll see pictures hanging on the walls of students past and present.

But at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, they’re doing things a little differently this year for their graduating seniors.

“I think about the fact that our students for so many years had their photographs taken as graduates and never had the opportunity to really experience the photograph,” said Superintendent Jim Durst.

In a collaboration with IUPUI’s School of Informatics and Computing, the senior class’s faces were 3D printed, so they were able to feel their senior pictures. It’s something they say has never been done at any school for the blind or visually impaired in the country.

Mitchell Bridwell is valedictorian of his class. He didn’t know what to expect at first, but he was happy with the results.

“I think it’s interesting how lifelike it is,” said Bridwell. “I can feel the contours of the face, and you could tell where… oh, that’s when I forgot to shave. Even if it’s rough, I definitely know—that’s definitely because I didn’t shave.”

While this is the first time Bridwell is feeling his senior portrait, it’s not the first time he’s “seeing” himself, so to speak. This experience is all about perspective for these students.

“I can feel my face, I have my own interpretation,” said Bridwell. “But feeling it out of a third-person perspective is different.”

And it’s not just their faces they were feeling, they were also able to feel the 3D prints of their classmates.

“One of the students said when he looked at another portrait from another student, he said, ‘I didn’t realize Colin had a beard.' That says an awful lot,” said Durst. “We take so much for granted as sighted individuals, and it’s experiences like this that really put it in perspective.”

Derek Miller is the 3D project coordinator at IUPUI. He helped scan all the senior class. He never thought this technology would be used for something like this.

“We primarily scan historical objects or artifacts for museums, for historical preservation,” said Miller. “Who would’ve guessed that that same technology can be applied for faces and for blind students.”

The small camera they use takes 1,000 pictures a second and the 3D scans took about 30 seconds. Afterwards, they were printed on a two-thirds scale and presented to the students.

“It essentially projects a camera projection, much like what you would see in a movie theater,” explained Miller. “As that movie screen projection glides across the surface, it picks up and measures every valley, every hill and basically re-creates that shape inside of the computer.”

The idea for the 3D-printed pictures popped into the head of Superintendent Durst and Steven Mannheimer of IUPUI’s School of Informatics and Computing. The University and the School have had a partnership for more than 12 years.

“It’s just one of those conversations,” said Mannheimer. “[We were] talking about the kids are getting ready for their class photos, and Jim was also telling me about their 3D print lab.”

“Through our collaboration with IUPUI, they can actually see their portraits for the first time,” said Durst. “And the reaction from students was pretty incredible.”

The experience wasn’t just incredible for the students but for everyone a part of the project.

“It’s hard to know what they see for the first time,” said Miller. “It’s just really cool and it’s a pretty gratifying feeling.”

“Jokingly, one of the students said, 'I didn’t realize my nose was so big,'” said Durst. “The fact that they’re experiencing, joking about it. One of the students said, 'I know where I’m going to put this in my house.' So, I think they will certainly take the object with them and I think the experience has been enlightening for them.”

“This little thing that we did today—bringing joy to these kids—is actually sort of a seed planted in terms of five years from now what we understand about how to make this tactual computer interaction better,” said Mannheimer. “Making kids happier is always a win, but it also leads us down a new direction of research, then it’s a win-win for us too.”

While Bridwell and the rest of the senior class graduated last week, this is just the start of this project for the School and IUPUI. The plan is to 3D scan and print every senior class moving forward. They hope to inspire other schools to do the same for their students.

“I hope that other schools for the blind, if they aren’t doing it, will capitalize from our experience and will share that with their students,” said Durst. “Not only their graduates, but also give them opportunities with 3D printing.”

But they don’t want to just stop at printing seniors. Something Miller wants to work on is scanning all the students every year while they’re at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Ideally, I would want the entire school K through 12, and you scan every single student, every single year,” said Miller. “So, by the time you’re a 5-year-old in Kindergarten by the time you become a senior, you have a timeline of a yearbook to go back and see basically how you look. And that’s something that I think all of us take for granted.”

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