Developing 3D-printed sheet music for the blind

Posted on 19. Feb, 2015 by in Academic Departments, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, People, Research

Yeaji Kim

Yeaji Kim playing piano using a Braille score.

When mechanical engineering graduate student William Aquite saw a video profiling Yeaji Kim, who was completing her PhD in the School of Music, he was intrigued.

Kim, who is blind, plays piano using Braille scores. However, the scores are highly complex and yet can still lack some information traditionally included on sheet music. To address this challenge, Kim invented a system that essentially raises the type on top of the staff and notes on regular sheet music, giving the musical notation a tactile quality that a visually impaired musician could read by touch and a sighted person could also read visually.

That invention, which opens up new possibilities in music education and accessibility, caught Aquite’s attention.

Aquite researches 3D printing technology and processes through the Polymer Engineering Center (PEC). He realized he could use 3D printing to help Kim create 3D musical scores. Aquite took the idea to Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tim Osswald, co-director of the PEC, and they approached Kim to collaborate. “Kim was interested in the idea and definitely excited about collaborating,” Aquite says. “This isn’t just building a prototype for her or the School of Music. It is a true collaboration in that we’re working closely with Kim to understand her design needs and to find solutions together.”

A team of Osswald’s undergraduate and graduate students has been working on the project, researching ways to improve the dimensional accuracy and surface quality of a 3D-printed music score. Since earning her PhD, Kim has returned home to South Korea, but her collaboration with the PEC continues. The team mails her the latest 3D-printed versions, and Kim gives feedback that informs the next iteration.

Osswald says the PEC’s advanced 3D printer—a selective laser sintering (SLS) machine, purchased with funding from a $1.5 million gift from alumnus Robert Cervenka and his wife, Debbie—was essential to the collaboration.
“The SLS machine is a catalyst for new ideas and opportunities,” Osswald says. “With projects like this, we are pushing the envelope of the technology, which is really what we’re supposed to be doing.”

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