Domain: Research

Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

PhD Research: Make It Visible - using 3D imaging and printing from microscopic

Location: United Kingdom

PhD student Kate Burton​ is conducting research on using 3D imaging and printing from microscopic images to provide tactile representations for visually impaired people. The aim is to take the world seen through a microscope and make it accessible to those with visual impairments​ using tactile 3D printed models​.

Within UCL’s Computer Sciences department and supervised by Dr Catherine Holloway (UCL), Dr Alex Ball (NHM), and Kenneth Png (Zeiss) the project investigate the properties and materials used for these models, create a set of guidelines​

Capturing images of a blowfly head inside of a scanning electron microscope.
Capturing images of a blowfly head inside of a scanning electron microscope.


Microscopy is a visual discipline and key to many of the most important discoveries and scientific concepts of the 20th Century. Increasingly, much of what humans observe and want to describe and understand is invisible to the naked eye. The use of “high tech” instrumentation reveals details to the observer that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. The use of magnified imagery and videos is commonplace in exhibitions and teaching, but how can the wonder and excitement we experience be conveyed in new discoveries to those who cannot see?

Over 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss. Frequently those with sight loss are excluded from enjoying museum exhibitions, as they are unable to see the items on display. Developing content for those with visual impairments is one of the most challenging tasks for curators. Museums trying to make their exhibits more accessible have adapted a range of responses from tactile paintings to the holistic approach of the V&A in London which incorporates Braille descriptions, staff training and tangible objects. These recent initiatives have shown there is an appetite to attempt to adapt content to make it fully accessible; and those with sight loss have engaged positively with the artefacts.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) has an extensive toolkit of microscopes and micro-CT scanners, and has developed methodologies to scan objects and create 3D models at almost any scale. These can then be used to create 3D printed outreach materials which can be easily modified or adapted to address particular audiences and questions. Global Disability Innovation Hub brings methods to co-design technologies with persons with disabilities, engaging a range of people with sight loss.

This project focuses on efforts of reproductions of microscopical objects so that the sometimes controversial use of replica objects as an alternative to providing access to real or duplicate objects from Museum collections can be avoided. The belief is that 3D printing provides a rapid and flexible tool to address the problem of developing content for those with sight loss.

Detailed research into how to optimise content for those with sight loss (and indeed anyone) is incomplete. Through this research we aim to understand how to recreate objects in such a way that a visually impaired person can explore the complexities of miniscule detail within large objects which make up collections in museums such as the NHM.

The challenge

Using NHM datasets (both existing and new) the project will test:

  • How closely should a 3D model mimic the exact structure it represents, and is this different for different sight loss conditions? (e.g. would a simplified 3D model of a butterfly serve as a representation of a butterfly, or would it be better to attempt to model it faithfully?)
  • How large should raised features on models be? (With an accurately scaled model, some features might be too small to feel. Should these be exaggerated? How large do features need to be in order for them to be detected?)
  • How far apart (what resolution) do features need to be? What roles do texture and material properties (i.e. stiffness or flexibility) play in representing a structure?
  • What roles do colour and contrast play for those with partial sight?
  • Is weight a consideration in designing 3D models of objects which the user might expect to be heavy?
  • How do visually impaired people construct complete images from replica parts of a whole structure?

This project is interdisciplinary. Part of the research will centre on new technological approaches to 3D image capture and the creation of new artefacts. The evaluation phase of the project will involve supervised interviews and workshops with visually impaired adults and children.

There are three stages to the methodology:

  1. Data collection: Compare the suitability of micro-computed tomography (µ-CT), laser scanning and scanning electron microscopy micro-photogrammetry (SEM µ-PG) as mechanisms for collecting 3D data at different length-scales. The NHM can provide access to all three techniques and has the NHM collections (c.a. 80 million objects) to draw upon for relevant samples.
  2. 3D model production: Compare the role of colour, contrast, physical properties (stiffness etc.), size, weight and texture in the production of models for outreach. Exploring the resolution required in terms of the size of reproduced features in the final model. These properties will be explored through printing in a variety of different media using a combination of 3D print facilities at the NHM and UCL, together with NHM research partners.
  3. Design requirements: Interviews with visually impaired adults and children, workshops and observation are also planned facilitated through Global Disability Innovation Hub and in association with Linden Lodge School, London.
3D printed specimens on display next to their real sized counterparts at a Zeiss booth at the Microscience Microscopy Congress 2019.
3D printed specimens on display next to their real sized counterparts at a Zeiss booth at the Microscience Microscopy Congress 2019.

The solution

Project outcomes:

  • Academic publications in leading museum, photogrammetry and human-computer interaction journals
  • A series of open-source and freely available models for outreach and education
  • Potential to develop open-source guidelines for the design and production of 3D models for tactile outreach
  • Public engagement across NHM “Lates”, European Researchers Night, and an exhibition on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Specimens being coated with a gold/palladium mixture before they are placed inside the scanning electron microscope.
Specimens being coated with a gold/palladium mixture before they are placed inside the scanning electron microscope.

Project Team

Colour profile image of Kate Burton
Kate Burton
PhD Student, Museum Tactile Access for Blind People


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