The roundabouts near campus, however, are a different matter. Because they lack traffic lights, there’s no way to audibly indicate when it’s safe to cross. In addition, the movement of vehicles through a roundabout is essentially random, making it impossible for the blind to rely on their experience with normal traffic patterns.

NC State traffic researchers used the Hunt Library’s 3-D printers to make a tactile map that helps the blind navigate a busy roundabout.

Researchers from NC State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) weren’t necessarily thinking of those problems when they took their first tour of the new Hunt Library. But a 3-D printer in the Hunt Library’s Makerspace inspired them to come up with a solution: a tactile map of a real-world roundabout, modeled to represent landscaping, crossings and the boundaries between street and sidewalk.

“It was a creative, spur-of-the-moment idea,” says Bastian Schroeder, assistant director of highway programs for the ITRE.

Tactile maps are common tools for transportation planners. But the companies that create tactile maps usually make them in bulk, so custom-designed maps are rare. The Hunt Library’s 3-D printers offered Schroeder and ITRE research assistant Jeffrey Chang a chance to turn their own custom design — a map of the busy roundabout at Pullen Road and Stinson Drive — into a scale-model reality in a matter of days.

Bastian Schroeder (left) and Jeffrey Chang examine a model of a campus roundabout they printed in the Hunt Library Makerspace.

The tactile map has a range of possible applications, Schroeder said. Most obviously, it’s a useful tool for teaching the blind to identify and navigate existing or planned traffic circles. It can also provide a design model for engineers building roundabouts.

“Being able to present a tactile map that says ‘this is what your experience is going to be like’ is really powerful,” Schroeder says.

Adam Rogers, emerging technology services librarian, uses a 3-D printer in the Hunt Makerspace.

Like the ITRE researchers, students from NC State’s College of Design are using the 3-D printing and scanning equipment in the Makerspace to build prototypes for their own projects. In the Hunt Library’s media production studios, professional tools for recording and editing audio and video are allowing users to create polished media projects.

The Hunt Library’s cutting-edge technology enables students and faculty to turn their bright ideas into beautiful solutions.