Video created by GuanHuei Wu

Today we’re with John Olson, the Co-Founder of 3DPhotoWorks. The mission of 3DPhotoWorks is both very simple and very ambitious: “provide the blind with access to art and photography at every museum, every science center and every cultural institution.” When did this idea first come to you, and what were the first steps in executing it?

As a young man I discovered photography. At 12 years old my goal was to become a world-class photojournalist. In fact, though I didn’t tell my father, I wanted to be a war photographer. In 1968, at the age of 20, I made a series of photographs in Vietnam that launched a decades long career that took me everywhere and allowed me to see the world in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for “images”. In 2008 I began to reflect on how critically important images had been to my life. As I connected the dots, I wondered what life was like for the blind. While I had no engineering or neuroscience training, I set out to develop a printing process that would allow blind people to “see” art and photographs on an equal basis with the sighted.

Can you tell us a bit about the technology? How does 3DPhotoWorks fundamentally work? 

3DPhotoWorks has developed a 3-step process that converts any 2–dimensional image to 3D data. Once the data has been captured it is sent to a machine that digitally sculpts it from a large block of substrate. Following sculpting, the image data is printed in register onto the bas-relief in a fully color managed workflow. Sensors are embedded throughout the art that when touched activate “audio theatre” to assist the blind in creating a mental picture.


Where have you had the chance to enact your idea? What have been the results? 

Early on we realized that to create a successful product to serve the blind we needed members of the blind community to work with us throughout the R&D process. We formed a relationship with the largest blind advocacy group in North America, the National Federation of the Blind. Their leadership and member volunteers worked closely with us, and in fact were critical to the process. With their help we received our 1st U.S. patent in 2015 and have patents pending in 7 countries worldwide. It was at their national convention in 2015 that we introduced 3D Tactile Fine Art Prints of the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Dr. Gachet and George Washington Crossing the Delaware to 2800 blind and sight impaired attendees. As they ran their fingertips over the art, we stood back and listened. Many of them had NEVER seen art before. Their response is priceless (a video titled “Response from the Blind” is on our website). What we learned is that when a blind person experiences art on their own without the help of a docent or a friend interpreting for them, that represents freedom, independence and equality. 

Is there anything or anyone out there doing something similar? 

We have seen the other attempts at serving the blind population but none of them offer what we have which are large, fully color managed prints with significant depth, texture down to the brush stroke and meaningful relief that can be easily interpreted by the blind. The other products offer little bumps that are about 1/8” in depth or shapes that can’t be printed to. Most people don’t realize that the printing aspect is important as most blind people have some limited sight. 

What other organizations have you worked with? How do these partnerships work? 

Early in 2016 we had our international debut at a museum at the forefront of serving the disabled, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Since then, we have been contacted by nearly a dozen museums interested in serving their blind patrons. Interestingly, more than half of them are from outside the U.S. 


Do you envision a museum experience 5, 10, 20 years down the line that people of all varieties of ableness will enjoy equally? What does it look like? 

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated “equal access” for the disabled to all public and private places that are open to the general public. At that time equal access was interpreted to mean physical access. Today, a broader interpretation is being discussed, one that advocates, “if a painting is made available to the sighted, it must be made available to the blind”. Until 3DPhotoWorks developed tactile fine art printing, this was impossible. Today there are 285 million blind and sight impaired worldwide. Now that our technology can serve this audience, in 5 years I hope to see a world in which, if a blind person can reach a museum, science center or institution, they will see art, photographs and the visual aspects of STEM on an equal basis with the sighted.