If you go

What: Exhibit of 3-D pages from "Harold and the Purple Crayon"

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays

Where: Gemmill Library of Engineering, Mathematics and Physics at CU

Cost: Free

More info: tactilepicturebooks.org

Elodie Bateson uses her fingers to touch and explore the "fur" of a mouse and the horns of a tiny cow on a few pages of a picture book.

The level of detail Elodie, 3, can feel is astounding to her mother, Michelle. Elodie was born with under-developed eyes and has retinal detachments, conditions that have made her mostly blind.

When they read about the mouse and the cow together, they were reading pages from a plastic, three-dimensional version of "Goodnight Moon" created by researchers at the University of Colorado to promote literacy among young children with visual impairments.

"Elodie loves exploring the tiniest details," said Michelle Bateson, who lives in Northern Ireland. "Her tiny fingers are so sensitive, she finds marks and lines I can't see."

The Bateson family learned of the Boulder-based 3-D project while searching for tactile picture books for Elodie online recently. She's enrolled in a pre-Braille program called "Fantastic Fingers," and the pages of the 3-D book are a good way to practice storytime and reading at home, Bateson said.

Two years ago, CU assistant professor Tom Yeh and a team of researchers began thinking about how 3-D printing could revolutionize the production of tactile graphics and picture books for children with visual impairments. Since they started working, the team has received dozens of requests for 3-D sample pages from around the world, including from the Batesons in the United Kingdom.

Jacob Davis, a student at Skyline High School in Longmont, touches the 3-D representation of a page in a children’s book during the Science Discovery
Jacob Davis, a student at Skyline High School in Longmont, touches the 3-D representation of a page in a children's book during the Science Discovery program at the University of Colorado earlier this month. CU researchers are using 3-D printing to improve the reading experience for young children with visual impairments. For more photos and a video of the project, go to www.dailycamera.com. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

Organizations such as the American Printing House for the Blind and individual artists have been creating tactile graphics for many years, but production of the books has been time-intensive, expensive and requires extensive specialization in art or digital software.

With the rise in popularity — and affordability — of the 3-D printer in the last five years or so, scientists and industry experts have been experimenting to see how the tool can be used to manufacture all sorts of products, including tiny versions of mice with plastic fur and cows in storybooks.

Co-reading benefits

The co-reading experience between a child and parents has many benefits, including the formation of emotional bonds and an early introduction to words, letters and sounds, Yeh said. It also helps parents begin to understand their child's learning style, he added.

For children with visual impairments, the pre-literacy age range between 2 and 5 years old is equally important.

"We like to support the co-reading experience," Yeh said. "They are just about to learn how to read. For children with visual impairments, they have to learn how to read Braille. They're not there yet, but it's still good value to be able to explore the picture while they're being read to by parents. It's a little bit harder for kids with visual impairments to have that kind of experience."

JC Greeley, a teacher at the Anchor Center for Blind Children in Denver, said the recurring exposure to 3-D shapes — and to Braille — at an early age can help children become interested in reading.

She said much like Braille, feeling the 3-D models on a page could help children with visual impairments learn how to piece together the parts of a whole — whether that's a sentence or a complete picture in a book.

The CU researchers, who consulted with many Anchor Center parents and teachers, are also creating a 3-D map for the center so that students can feel with their fingers the shapes inside the building.

Lois Strope takes notes as Jacob Davis touches a 3-D representation of a children’s picture book at the University of Colorado. A team of CU
Lois Strope takes notes as Jacob Davis touches a 3-D representation of a children's picture book at the University of Colorado. A team of CU researchers is using 3-D printing to help revolutionize the production of tactile graphics and picture books for children with visual impairments. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

"The link between orientation mobility and the literacy pieces, being able to bring those into the life of a really young blind child, 2 years old, 3 years old, is just — that is something that's not only needed but it's such an enrichment," Greeley said. "It's language. It's stories, and then it's tactile and hearing memory. It's being able to help develop cognitive concepts."

The Bateson family loves to read, but finding a detailed, inexpensive way for Elodie to participate has been a challenge, Bateson said.

"I was looking for different ways to encourage my little girl into early literacy experiences," Bateson said. "I certainly struggle with explaining concepts to my little girl, and teachers and parents have been creating labor-intensive creations for years. To finally have a resource that can be shared with such detail is a gift."

Printing process

The first book the CU team produced was "Goodnight Moon," a popular bedtime story first published in 1947. In its first 3-D iteration, researchers printed the base page and 3-D objects as one whole, seamless unit.

On the page opposite the 3-D models, researchers printed the text and Braille words.

In a second book, "Harold and the Purple Crayon," researchers cut plastic into page-sized rectangles, and then glued the 3-D objects onto the page, which saved them time and money.

They also experimented with fabrics such as felt as the base for the pages, Yeh said.

"Not too surprisingly, kids really like this fabric," he said. "Especially for kids with visual impairments, texture is very important to them."

Eventually, if 3-D printers become cheap enough, parents could make their own tactile books with objects from an online library the CU researchers hope to create, said Jeeeun Kim, a graduate student working on the project.

They could print increasingly more complex versions of the same page as the child grows, Kim said.

"A cow model is too complicated," Kim said. "It's not really recognizable for young, young children who have never seen a cow. So we could make different abstracts, like a flat cow image that only has the horns."

There are downsides to this method of creating tactile books and graphics, Yeh noted. Even as the price for the printers is becoming less prohibitive, they're still hard to use.

The average printing time for one page is about three hours, and many took up to six hours, Yeh said. As with early inkjet and laser printers, 3-D printers experience their own types of malfunctions, much like paper jams. After several hours of printing, Yeh said, it can be frustrating to start over because of a printer failure.

Increasing diversity

For "Harold and the Purple Crayon," Yeh looked to one of his upper-level computer science classes this spring. Each student designed, modeled and printed four pages from the book.

A display of their pages — which are all unique — has been set up at CU's Gemmill Library of Engineering, Mathematics and Physics.

For a field that's often stereotyped as male, math-heavy and solitary, the project introduced computer science students to ways they can incorporate art and creativity, as well as societal impact, into their studies, Yeh said.

"If you go across, you can see that there are so many different ways of rendering and designing Harold, the balloon," Yeh said, pointing to the display at CU's engineering library. "They all look very different."

At a recent summer camp through CU's Science Discovery program, the researchers introduced high school students to the concept of 3-D printing and computer science — without computers.

They had the students use Legos and other tools to turn a 2-D image into a 3-D object to show them that the field of computer science isn't just writing code.

"Computer science is not all about programming or doing something with a computer," Kim said.

Kim said she could see this type of project attracting people to her field who are more interested in humans than computers, and could provide a space for collaboration with neuroscientists or developmental psychologists.

"There's not too many projects where you can see a very clear combination of engineering, societal impact and art," Yeh said. "It gives all students an option to communicate through design and 3-D models."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106 or kutas@dailycamera.com.