3-D printing is very visually dependent, from designing the 3-D models to finding the right file for your printer to physically operating the printing process. Obviously, this leaves the visually impaired at a significant disadvantage—which is especially uncool for a community that sees the world through touch. Yahoo Japan seeks to bring the world of 3-D printing to the visually impaired with the "Hands On Search", a cutesy cloud-shaped 3-D printer that listens to search requests and prints out a 3-D model of the search result.
Computer interfaces for the visually impaired are typically audio-based screen readers, which can be first- or third-party browser experiences and vary in quality and feature options. Automating the 3-D printing process down to audio controls will bring tactile exploration into the visually dominant digital world, but it will also open the door for audio-controlled 3-D printed projects on an individual/desktop scale.
Yahoo Japan lent the machine to the Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired associated with the University of Tsukuba for its trial run. The elementary-aged kids woke up to a sweet surprise earlier this month when they found a 3-D printing experience especially tailored to their abilities:
The "Hands On Search" isn’t complicated, as seen in its "making of" video: A MakerBot Replicator 2 sits inside a box decorated by chiseled foam, users speak their web search terms while pressing the circular red button, and confirm their choice (which the machine speaks back to them) by pressing the square blue button.
The fun tech, however, is in the automated search: It obviously uses Yahoo’s search engine to locate the 3-D model files if the request isn’t already in the machine’s 110-file database, which includes files donated by private corporations (like Nissan Motors—I suppose asking to print "car" means we’ll get an Altima?). But if it can’t find the file, it’ll drop advertisements across the web (as part of its "Links For Good" campaign) asking folks to donate the files requested by children at the Special Needs School.