19th century art form revived to make tactile scientific graphics for blind people

19th century art form revived to make tactile scientific graphics for blind people
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3D-printed lithophanes allow optically impaired scientists to fingertip data such as protein separation gels.
expand / 3D-printed lithophanes could help optically impaired scientists “see” data with their fingertips, such as protein separation gels.

Ordan Koone/Bryan Shaw

19th century, known as an art form lithophanes It was all the rage in Western Europe. These fine engravings are usually made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, a glowing 3D image appears that will change its properties in response to changes in the light source. Now researchers have brought this art form to life to create tactile graphics to illustrate scientific data that shines in high resolution. by final paper Published in the journal Science Advances, these lithophanes are accessible to sighted and visually impaired people, making them a universal visualization tool for scientific data.

“This research is an example of the art that makes science more accessible and inclusive. Art liberates science from itself.” co-author Bryan Shaw said, and a biochemist at Baylor. “The science’s data and images – for example, the stunning images from the new Webb telescope – are inaccessible to blind people. However, we show that thin translucent tactile graphics called lithophane can create all these images that are accessible to anyone, regardless of their eyesight. As we like to say, ‘ data for all’.”

The word “lithophane” is of Greek origin. litho (stone or rock) and phainein (to cause it to appear), colloquially translated as “light in the stone”. The art form’s roots can be traced back to ancient China, from the Tang Dynasty to 1000 years ago. (Historical sources describe paper-thin, hidden decorated bowls.) However, to date, no true lithophane has been known to have been found in China before 1800.

Exactly who perfected the process of making lithophane is still debated among historians. The common 19th century process involved etching a 3D design into a thin layer of translucent wax or porcelain using traditional methods. relaxation and carving printing techniques. More light would shine through the parts of the carving where the wax was the thinnest.

These lithophanes were between one-sixteenth of an inch and a quarter-inch thick. They were displayed as slabs, hung on windows or in front of shields, with candles lit behind them as a source of light. Lithofans can also be used as nightlights, fireplace curtains, tea warmers or ornaments engraved with erotic images. American industrialist samuel colt He filled his home in Hartford, Connecticut with more than 100 lithophanes and commissioned 111 versions of a photograph of him to give to friends and associates.

The technique fell out of favor after the invention of photography, but the advent of 3D printing has revived interest. According to Shaw and his co-authors, lithophanes today are typically made from plastic that is 3D printed from any 2D image converted into 3D topography they make with free online software. Four of these co-authors were blind from birth or childhood, but still successfully completed their doctorates. But these are rare examples. Finding a way to create universal tactile science graphics that can be used by both blind and visually impaired individuals would remove a longstanding barrier that keeps many visually impaired people out of science.

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