When I was shadowing a teacher, we noticed that one of their students with low vision was struggling to view images of animals for a science lesson, even if the images were high resolution. The student mentioned that they had trouble seeing the subject of the image because of the cluttered forest background, or that other animals blended into their surroundings and were impossible to see. Images with a solid black background were easier to see, but some of the images looked strange when displayed in a two-dimensional way.
One of the strategies I used to help this student view animals and other visuals in their science class was to search for 3D models in the Microsoft 3D Library, a free tool that’s built into Windows 10 and 11, as well as several Microsoft 365 applications. The student found it easier to magnify the 3D models, and was excited to use it in different settings. Here are my tips for using Microsoft 3D models with low vision audiences.
Microsoft 3D overview
Microsoft 3D Models library is a free tool that is built into the 3D Viewer app as well as Word, PowerPoint, and Excel for displaying digital 3D models and exploring their features. Users can choose from a variety of different types of models and adjust their lighting, position, and color themes, as well as more advanced settings. Microsoft 3D Models come built-in with Windows 10 and 11, as well as Word, PowerPoint, and Excel desktop applications.
Some images in 3D Library are more realistic than others- for example, the model for a yellow Labrador retriever looks more realistic than the model for a chihuahua. For the lesson on bugs and insects, the models were realistic enough for the student to work with.
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Categories in Microsoft 3D Library
There are dozens of different categories of 3D Models available in Microsoft Office, with popular topics including biology, chemistry, animals, geology, flowers/plants, and more. Categories of models that are available in the Microsoft 3D Model library include:
- Animals and Insects
- Buildings and Structures
- Sci-Fi and Fantasy
- Outdoors and Nature
- Cars and Vehicles
- Best of Minecraft
- Vinyl Toy
- Word Bubbles
In addition to viewing models from the 3D Models library, users can also view or add their own models in several different file formats including .fbx, .3mf, .obj, and .stl, among others.
How to use Microsoft 3D library
IN MICROSOFT OFFICE
Within Microsoft Office, users can insert 3D models into their Word, PowerPoint, or Excel files by navigating to the Insert ribbon and selecting the “3D Models” option in the Illustration section. From there, users can browse various categories or search for a specific model to insert into their document or presentation, and can resize the model so that it is larger/smaller. While many of the 3D models do not include animation, they can be rotated 360 degrees and resized to fit the page.
IN MICROSOFT 3D VIEWER
Microsoft 3D Viewer comes pre-installed on most Windows 10 computers, so users can open the application by searching for “3D Viewer” on their computer. Once the program is opened, the screen defaults to a model of a bee buzzing its wings on the screen, though users can open other models by selecting the “3D Model Library” button on the home screen or using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-O (or Ctrl-O if the model is saved on the computer). Users can then explore a model further by touching the item and dragging it with their mouse or a finger, or using the mouse and mouse scroll wheel.
In Paint 3D
3D models can also be viewed in the Paint 3D app. This can be done by selecting “Open in Paint 3D” within the 3D Viewer application, or selecting Brushes in Paint 3D and selecting “3D Library.”
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Adding light filters
There are a few options for adding color and light filters to 3D models, as well as adjusting a spotlight and environmental light. As a user with low vision, I find it helpful to adjust Environment Intensity (in the Environment section) to a higher value if a model has a lot of dark colors, so that I can see the colors more easily.
How to magnify and enlarge 3D models for low vision
There are a few options for magnifying and enlarging Microsoft’s 3D models in the 3D library and in Office, including:
- Using the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in
- Holding down the plus (+) or minus (-) keys on the keyboard
- Swipe to rotate
- Resizing the image in Word or PowerPoint so it takes up a larger section of the page
- Viewing images in a full screen display by adding a full size image in PowerPoint
Another option would be to connect the computer or device to a larger display, such as a television, and have the user manipulate the image with a mouse or similar tool.
How I’ve used Microsoft 3D models with low vision
Science lessons with 3D models
For an elementary school science lesson, I worked with the classroom teacher to incorporate models for their lesson from the Animals and Insects section, as well as Outdoors and Nature. Instead of having the student label parts of a bee based on a 2D image, students were able to rotate and enlarge a 3D bee and get a better idea of where different parts were located, and zoom in to see various details.
Creating a mental model with a 3D model
I often talk about how people with vision loss develop mental models for different objects- as an example, I may not be able to see a helicopter in the sky, but I still learned what a helicopter looks like by looking at images and checking out tactile models. Microsoft 3D models are a great tool to help students develop their own mental models and examine details of objects that they wouldn’t otherwise pick up on- for example, I examined the 3D model of a covered wagon and learned that there was often a seat for the driver, which is something I had never noticed before.
Anatomy and cell models for science class
One of my friends showed me the anatomy and cell models that are available in “Latest 3D collections”, and I though the models for the eye and brain would be really useful for science classes, as well as for Teachers of the Visually Impaired who are teaching lessons about vision loss with the eye and/or brain. There are a few different anatomy and cell models to choose from, including plant cells and animal cells.
Adding fun art to projects
If the Microsoft 3D library was around when I was in middle and high school, I would have had a lot of fun adding models to my school projects, as I find them easier to see than items in the traditional clip art library.
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More tips on using Microsoft 3D models and low vision
- 3D models inserted into Excel, PowerPoint, and Word support adding alt text for screen reader users, but there is no automatic alt text
- Users can add 3D models from outside sources to the 3D viewer by using the shortcut Ctrl-O
- While images can theoretically be enlarged with Windows Magnifier, I prefer to use the mouse or other techniques for enlarging images, as I find it disorienting to use Magnifier with animated images.