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Story highlights

3D Photoworks creates tactile art for the blind to experience in museums

The 3-D creations also make art more accessible for everyone

(CNN) —  

Luc was only 7 years old when his world went dark and he became blind unexpectedly. But as he likes to say, blindness isn’t very effective on him.

Even with his can-do attitude, the 13-year-old recalls feeling excluded when he visited a museum exhibition with his family in Victoria, British Columbia. It offered no Braille for the blind to use in its museum experience, so his mother read information from the placards to him. Beyond that and a few audio buttons, the rest of the exhibit involved paintings and items encased in glass, with no way for him to learn more about them.

“It made me feel like an outsider,” he said.

But two years ago, Luc was able to “see” art again in a unique way at a convention for the blind. He encountered 3D Photoworks, a company that produces tactile fine art printing for museums and science centers. It had a few samples on hand for people to experience, “seeing” through touching famous works of art such as the “Mona Lisa” that have been converted into touchable 3D-printed versions.

The art is also embedded with sensors throughout, and when they are activated, audio describes what is being touched on the image.

“I had never felt anything like this before,” said Luc, whose family asked that their last name not be used.

John Olson, the co-founder of 3D Photoworks, was at the convention to introduce his idea to the blind community, receive feedback and ask them to join focus groups. Wanting input from all ages, Olson asked Luc to be one of his technical advisers.

As a young person, Luc was living in a highly visual world without sight. Olson wanted to know what Luc was looking for when it comes to inclusive museum exhibits.

“Luc is a dynamic kid who doesn’t let blindness stand in his way,” Olson said.

Olson, a photographer of 40 years who became known for his work during the Vietnam War in Life magazine, saw an opportunity in 2008 to develop the technology to give the blind access to art and photography in a way they had never experienced before. The startup spent seven years working on the technology and process behind scanning 2-D images and using them to carve out 3-D art and overlay the print on top of a substrate.

It has already provided the “Sight Unseen” experience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as showcasing what it can offer to the more than 35,000 museums in the U.S. at the American Alliance of Museums Expo in Washington. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 285 million people visually impaired worldwide, and Olson wants to help as many of them as he can reach through museums and other cultural institutions.

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“[Our process] captures information down to the brushstroke,” he said. “When a blind person experiences a Van Gogh or the ‘Mona Lisa,’ they in fact can capture more information than many people who are sighted that have to view art at a distance.”

For the sighted going to visit the original “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre today, visitors are 40 to 50 feet away behind two barriers, and the art is protected by layers of bulletproof glass. The 3-D process allows everyone to experience this art differently, whether they are sighted or not, Olson said.

“Before, I had only encountered audio descriptions of art in museums,” Luc said. “But that’s not your interpretation; that is how someone else sees it. With this, you can make your own decisions about art and experience it for real. You can feel the details that would be left out in an audio description.”