Published: April 14, 2014

On most nights, Tom Yeh puts his 3­-year-­old son on his lap, opens a children's book and reads aloud. It's a much­-loved activity for both father and son as the characters are brought to life.

A year ago, while reading the children's classic Goodnight Moon, Yeh, an assistant professor in computer science, began thinking about how to make books more accessible to visually impaired preschool-­age children.

Although his son has no visual impairment, Yeh, whose research is focused on human­-centered computing - how humans and computers interact -  set his sights on printing children's picture books using a 3­D printer. Characters and objects described in the storyline would actually pop off the page when printed in 3­D, enhancing the reading experience for visually impaired children.

"I really enjoy reading stories with my son," says Yeh, "and I thought I might be able to contribute to making books for visually impaired children more tactile." Yeh leads the Sikuli Lab at CU­-Boulder, where he is training a team of talented students to conduct research to make computers see better and interact with humans more naturally. Sikuli means "God's Eye" in Huichol, the indigenous language of Mexico, and it symbolizes the ability to see and understand.

His research program spans human­computer interaction, computer vision and software engineering, with a goal of enabling people to use machine intelligence to solve practical problems.

Yeh is looking at ways to represent 2­D graphics in a 3­D, tactile way, and on a scale that's appropriate for young children's cognitive abilities and interests. By combining these factors into computational algorithms, he and his researchers are developing an interface that will allow parents to print their own customized books at home using a 3­D printer.

The idea, says Yeh, is similar to Pandora radio, which offers curated music playlists based on individual preferences.

"Three­-dimensional printing holds the key to simplifying the making of tactile picture books," says Yeh. "As 3­D printers become cheaper and more powerful, soon people will own a 3­D printer at home, just like now they own color printers at home. Every kid needs a special book that provides the experience he or she needs," says Yeh. "It is impossible for mass production printing to do that so that it's easy to make changes and customize. With the price of 3­D printers coming down, it's not out-­of-­reach for a school classroom or a parent to print books. For a child, being able to read together with a parent is very important."

Yeh's prototype book, appropriately enough, is Goodnight Moon.

Read the full story in CUEngineering magazine.