Color & Control:

Unseen Art

The Unseen Art Project is an initiative to make art more accessible and inclusive by using 3D-printing technology to create replicas of masterpieces that can be touched ’till your heart is content.

3D Printing. Classical Paintings for the Blind.

By Johnny Strategy.

You can look but you can’t touch. That’s one of the first rules of museums, which house priceless works of art.

But what about the community of blind and visually impaired who use their sense of touch to experience the world? The Unseen Art Project is an initiative to make art more accessible and inclusive by using 3D-printing technology to create replicas of masterpieces that can be touched ’till your heart is content.

“There are many people in the world who have heard of classical artworks their whole lives but are unable to see them,” says Marc Dillon, a Helsinki-based designer who wants to make works like the Mona Lisa touchable. In order to make his vision a reality, Dillon has recently established a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. He hopes to raise enough money to create an online repository where artists can contribute 3D data of artworks and anyone with a 3D printer will be able to print it out.

With the price of 3D printers drastically coming down in recent years, Dillon’s project has the potential to “touch” a large population of people who have an interest in art but have never been able to see it. As the campaign points out, “It would be a revolution to get blind people going to art galleries, people hate them because there is nothing there to touch!” (via The Creators Project)

Making art more accessible to blind and visually impaired people is founder Marc Dillon’s new mission. After almost a quarter century working in the mobile industry—latterly at alternative mobile OS maker, Jolla, from where he finally departed this fall—he says it’s time to give back.

“I was looking for something to do post-Jolla, I’ve been in mobile for 25 years nearly and I wanted to do something that gives back to people,” Dillon tells TechCrunch.

“The things that came together for me were I wanted to find a place where I could basically find a community that had a need and give back to that, with the experience that I have. And then with the fact that this was an open platform that basically will be free once it gets up and running—that were the things I thought were really amazing about this.

The not-for-profit project—called Unseen Art—is launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign today, seeking to raise $50,000 to build a software platform where 3D artists can upload creations and those wanting to print the art pieces can freely download them. Idea being that great works of art should be accessible to all, says Dillon, the project evangelist. The first artwork it’s aiming to create and make downloadable in 3D is the Mona Lisa.

The art is about an emotional response.
“In validating the idea we found a young lady who was born blind, and she is an artist and a musician, and she had heard about the Mona Lisa her whole life and she’d never had any kind of experience about what it really means,” he says.

“There are people who have heard about many different pieces of art their whole lives and they’ve never had any access to that. So I think that it’s amazing that an artist that’s in London can create a model—in this case it’s the Mona Lisa is the one we’re starting with—and then there’s a guy in Texas who’s printing it out; a blind person or one of the organizations.

“It’s been quite exciting to get involved and see that it actually does touch people. They get an emotional response—the art is about an emotional response. You might love it, you might hate it, but it should make you feel something. And we’ve seen a lot of people feel a lot of different things with this so far,” he adds.

As chance would have it, another 3D art platform (3DPhotoWorks) with a plan to make artworks and photos more accessible to blind people is currently running a crowdfunder on Kickstarter—albeit it’s looking to raise considerably more money ($500,000), and is not an open source project.

“One of the biggest differences is that we’re trying to do this to build a non-commercial platform,” says Dillon. “The classical artworks of the world are something we believe everybody should have accessibility to and it should be free. So we have to build something in order to do that.

“The way that we got started here is that one of the guys was at a swim hole and there was a young blind boy who asked his parents for his swimming medal… and the boy recognized that it wasn’t the first place medal. And he said ‘hey I want the good one; this is not the first place one’. One of the guys here thought that it was amazing that two things that looked alike to him the boy could tell the difference between them just by touch,” he adds.

Why paintings and not sculptures, which are—after all—already 3D, so would be easier to replicate in 3D? Dillon says there have already been some moves to make sculptures accessible to blind people—such as by holding exhibitions where blind people are invited to don examination gloves and touch the sculptures. But not so much for making paintings accessible.

Is a 3D painting still a painting? In the literal sense, clearly not. But there’s also evidently going to be something of an interpretation process as 3D artists turn 2D artworks into 3D models. Dillon argues this is also another differentiation vs 3DPhotoWorks’ approach, describing their product as “more of a relief style” versus the fully 3D models Unseen Art aims to distribute.

“One of the early validators that we had found was that there needs to be some depth of touch, and there needs to be some limitation to detail—a perspective on the art, or an impression of the art, for people to really understand it. If you took any typical painting, we could use the Mona Lisa again, and you made that whole thing—every bit of detail in there—then people aren’t really going to get a lot out of it,” he says.

“Artists who want to do this—because it’s a good cause, rather than because it’s a commercial thing—we’ve gotten people that want to put their impression, they can put a different impression, maybe we might even have five different perspectives… Or interpretations of a particular piece of art that might give a different perspective. Just like when you or I look at a piece of art we might see different things.”

As well as opening up artworks to blind and visually impaired people to experience via touch, Dillon reckons there could also be potential for the 3D artworks created on the platform to offer sighted people a different experience of great artworks.

Johnny Strategy is a writer with a focus on art and design, and founder of Spoon and Tomago.


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