Visual Art Touches Blind

Four Harvard students are working to allow the blind and visually impaired to experience visual art by using 3D printing and audio components.

The project, named Midas Touch, has been developed as a part of the first Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge—a program sponsored by University Deans and hosted by the Harvard I-Lab to encourage students in “cultural entrepreneurship.”

The idea behind Midas Touch—organized by blockmates Aaron Perez ’15, Rishav Mukherji ’15, Vaios Triantafyllou ’15, and Constantine Tarabanis ’15—was inspired by a proposal for an Aesthetic and Interpretative Understanding 13: “Cultural Agents” final project, in which students were instructed to “create an artistic intervention.”

A teaching fellow for the course encouraged Triantafyllou and Tarabanis to enter the proposal into the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge. With the addition of Perez and Mukherji, the group entered, and Midas Touch was chosen as one of 10 finalists out of 70 preliminary teams, according to Mukherji.

Working in the I-Lab and Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory, the team will use 3D printing technology to create a relief of artwork. When touched, a layer of pressure-activated sensors will relay audio feedback about the painting that will range from a description of the object’s physical qualities to details about its history and meaning via headphones. The first prototype, a relief of René Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” is currently in the works.

Mukherji said that adding audio notations to reliefs makes it a unique project.

“There are many artifacts out there which provide tactile reliefs for paintings,” he said. “But we don’t just give you the form, we also give you information along with it.”

For the Midas Touch team, social responsibility is a key concern.

With the extensive audio notations, Midas Touch believes the product has applications beyond use for the blind and visually impaired. The project organizers said they see a place for their reliefs in museums and other educational and cultural institutions, as well as in schools for the blind.

“Something that resonates among us is the fact that entrepreneurship is usually seen as something greedy or self-serving,” said Tarabinis. “But at the end of the day, you can see that you have a combination of entrepreneurship and technology solving a social issue.”

Tarabinis said the team is cautiously optimistic about its product.

“There’s always a barrier because this was created by people who have vision for people who don’t have vision,” he said. “We have our own limitations in terms of being able to create something effective.”

Midas Touch aims to solve this problem by inviting students from Perkins School for the Blind to a demonstration several days before the final round of the Dean’s Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge on May 9. The team hopes to improve the product based on feedback from the students.

Although Midas Touch is undecided about future plans for expansion, the team said that this venture has long-term potential. Even as the project is in its early stages, they have received press attention from various media outlets and attracted interest from individuals and organizations outside of Harvard.

“We believe this is a product which will become very viable in the future,” said Mukherji. Beyond paintings, the team hopes to apply its ideas to media such as maps, photographs, comics, and posters.

“We’re extending the arm of technology to embrace art,” said Perez. “That really hasn’t been heard of, at least from my end, and I think that’s really exciting.”

—Staff writer Brianna D. MacGregor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bdmacgregor.