The Art of Seeing



The startup is the brainchild of photographer John Olson, who says he wanted to help blind people experience visual art. Olson began his career as a war photographer at age 21, and was the youngest photographer ever hired to the staff of Life magazine.


Museums hire 3DPhotoWorks to give tactile surfaces to artworks in their collection. However, the company converted Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware to tactile art as proof-of-concept pieces.


To create the tactile art, Olson hired Quattrociocchi, who was designing digital printers at the time. Quattrociocchi created a printer for the startup that could provide tactile details “down to the brushstroke.”


A graphic designer replicates a painting’s brushstrokes on a computer program. When printed, the brushstrokes are several millimeters deep—large enough to be felt.


Quattrociocchi essentially reengineered a large inkjet printer to add more depth and detail. The company holds multiple patents for the technology.


The first part of the printing process requires a bit of manual work. A high-resolution, color-perfect copy of the original artwork is first uploaded to a computer. Then, a 3-D conversion specialist augments the piece by digitally adding depth so the art appears three-dimensional. For a portrait, for example, facial features become more sculpted and contoured.


The updated 2-D file is then printed at a size of 150 by 300 centimeters, at depths of up to 50 mm. Most printers allow for depths to only 5 mm.


Based on feedback from those who have touched the works, the team learned that people are more sensitive to textures than to shapes. Textures provide stronger mental images, so Quattrociocchi is working on adding greater texture to his pieces.


The works might be more vivid for those who became blind or visually impaired later in life—they’re able to recall colors and objects they’ve seen before. However, the works also can help those born blind to “see” art for the first time.





Why does 3DPhotoWorks make its tactile art pieces in color? The exhibits are for sighted people, too, Quattrociocchi notes. They also can experience the art by feeling it. And most legally blind people have some degree of vision, however slight, he adds.


The company hopes to work with science centers and zoos in the coming years, helping students learn about science, technology, engineering, and math through touch.


The original idea for the company was to develop artwork that people could buy to hang in their homes, but the process has proven too expensive. As Quattrociocchi continues to automate his approach, however, he hopes the art will become more affordable.


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