American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       GRAPHICS

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An Interview with John Olson

A boy examines a 3D photo of Washington Crossing the Delaware.From the Editor: At its 2015 national convention, the National Federation of the Blind celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding. Speakers related some of the organization's historic achievements; conventioneers enjoyed a dance with a 1940s theme; and 2,480 Federationists broke a Guinness record by forming the world's largest umbrella mosaic.

Another tribute to the NFB's seventy-fifth anniversary was a series of 3D-printed photographs on display outside the main meeting hall. Based upon photos from the Federation's vast archives, each panel represented a decade in the organization's history. Visitors could touch and explore images of the Federation's presidents and other leaders at historic moments. By touching strategically placed sensors, they could also hear excerpts from key Federation speeches.

The display at the 2015 NFB convention was created by 3DPhotoWorks, a company dedicated to making photographs and paintings accessible to the blind. In the following interview, 3DPhotoWorks founder John Olson explains the company's mission and the ways that 3D printing can change the world for the blind.

Deborah Kent Stein: Please share a bit about your background. How did you get interested in creating 3D photos?

John Olson: My father was a farmer, and I spent my early years on a farm in Morris, Illinois. I attended a one-room schoolhouse that didn't even have indoor plumbing. As a teenager I discovered photography, and I decided to become a photojournalist. This was during the 1960s, and the United States was involved in the Vietnam War. I was drafted and sent to Vietnam when I was nineteen. While I was there I took a series of photographs that were sent to Life magazine. Life published some of my photos of the Battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the images became famous overnight. When I was only twenty I won the Robert Capa Award for Superlative Photography, one of the highest honors in the field.

When my tour in Vietnam was over, Life offered me a job. I was the youngest staff photographer the magazine had ever hired.

At that time Life was the place to be for a photojournalist. My work took me all over the world. I even covered the White House and traveled with President Richard Nixon. Everything I'd dreamed of as an Illinois farm boy had miraculously come true.

About eight years ago, I found myself reflecting upon my long career. Images had brought me amazing success and deep satisfaction. I wondered what life would be like without visual images. What was the world like for people who are blind?

DKS: Was anyone in your family blind? Did you have any blind friends?

JO: No, I had never known a blind person in my life. But somehow the idea of creating images for the blind seemed really compelling to me. During Labor Day weekend in 2008 I sat in my office and began to develop a printing process that I hoped would allow blind people to appreciate art and photography as much as I do.

Not surprisingly, I faced a number of challenges. I had a concept in mind, but I had no data to back me up. How would I do it? Would it be valuable to blind people? I realized that I needed to conduct some hands-on research. I needed to create a protocol, introduce it within the blind community, and listen to what blind people could tell me.

DKS: How did you go about it?

JO: My office was about two hours from New York City. I did a search on blind and found several blindness agencies and organizations. I met with a lot of people and showed them my prototype. Everybody was very encouraging. They thought I had an important idea, but they didn't know what I ought to do next.

During my search I came across the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. I started attending some of the state conventions of both organizations. At the NFB of New York convention in Albany, I met President Mark Riccobono. He was very interested in my work and invited me to the NFB headquarters in Baltimore. At the National Center I met with President Riccobono and with Anne Taylor from the tech department. They gave me a lot of feedback and encouragement.

DKS: Where did you go from there?

JO: In 2014, my team and I took a prototype to the NFB national convention in Orlando, Florida. It was a 3D printed representation of the painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." It included audio sensors that could provide spoken information.

We invited ten blind people to take part in focus groups at the convention, engaging in discussion about everything that worked for them or didn't work. To explore their experience in depth, we began by asking the volunteers to tell us about their blindness and encouraging them to talk about what art and photography meant to them. Then they examined the artwork and gave us their feedback.

The response was highly positive, but we spent the next year wondering if what we heard was truly legitimate. After all, everyone was at convention, having fun, connecting with friends; everyone was in high spirits. Clearly people were very appreciative of the efforts we had made, but were they simply telling us what they thought we wanted to hear?

Back home, we took the ideas that came out of the focus groups and made some modifications to the George Washington prototype. We also developed 3D images of da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and Vincent van Gogh's "Dr. Gachet." When we attended the NFB convention in 2015, we displayed all three works to the general membership in the exhibit hall. As visitors stopped to check out the images, we stood back, listened, and filmed their reactions. We gathered the responses of hundreds of people, and they were overwhelmingly positive. At last we could believe that the excitement was for real.

One of the most powerful moments for me occurred when a woman took me aside after she examined the images. She said that being able to capture visual information on her own, without the intervention of a friend or a docent, represented freedom. When she said that, I realized we had a chance to change the world.

My team and I established 3DPhotoWorks as a for-profit company. In 2015 we received our first US patent, and we have patents pending in seven other countries. Our patent covers the printing process, the way ink is added to the relief to provide visual as well as tactile elements. We got that idea from Anne Taylor. She pointed out that most blind people have some sight; color enhances the tactile experience for people with usable vision.

DKS: Do you plan to market your images? How will you get them into places where blind people can experience them?

JO: All during this process we avoided being discovered by the media. We didn't want to go out to the public until we were ready. But the word started to get out. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg found out about our work. They were planning an exhibit of work by blind photographers, and they asked us to create 3D images of the works on display. So we had our debut in February 2016 with this exhibit, which was called "Sight Unseen." A lot of blind people attended and provided us with further feedback.

In May 2016 we exhibited at the conference of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, DC. We reached thousands of museum personnel and even got coverage from CNN. Three Federationists and I staffed our booth, and people crowded around three deep trying to get a look. At this point we're talking with ten museums that are interested in buying some of our work. Queries come in every week from all over the world.

DKS: What kind of response have you gotten from museums?

JO: Museums have responded well. Interestingly, the most responsive have been a dozen organizations located outside the United States. Many are in countries with an ingrained sense of serving the disabled. Within the US, educators and accessibility people recognize the opportunity to greatly improve their offerings, especially in smaller organizations with fewer layers. What we offer is a radical new concept. The media find it very exciting because it's unlike anything they've seen before. We want to make it possible for blind and sighted people to enjoy images together, in the same museum spaces. Our goal is to create a revolution, to build a network of museums that will serve the blind as well as the sighted community. Some museums are starting to recognize that, by making a serious commitment to accessibility, they can tap into some new sources of funding.

DKS: How does the Federation fit into your plans?

JO: We would not possibly be where we are today without the support of the leadership and volunteers from the Federation. We owe an enormous debt to their enthusiasm and technical expertise.

When we worked on the display for the Federation's seventy-fifth anniversary, we examined stacks of photos and read hundreds of documents. That research gave us a deep respect for the NFB, its philosophy, and its commitment to change. Our anniversary piece is now on display in the lobby of the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore.

One of our goals is to create a grassroots network of savvy Federationists from around North America. They can help us connect with local museum communities. They can visit museums and explain the importance of images in blind people's lives. They can urge museums to look at us on the web and consider working with us.

For more information, you can visit our website at <>. You can contact us at (518) 392-8161 or [email protected].

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