19th century art form revived to make tactile science charts for blind people

19th century art form revived to make tactile science charts for blind people
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3D-printed lithophanes can help optically challenged scientists
Expand / 3D-printed lithophanes can help optically impaired scientists “see” data, such as from protein separation gels, with their fingertips.

Ordan Koone/Bryan Shaw

In the 19th century, an art form known as lithophanes It was fashionable in Western Europe. These fine engravings used to be made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. Backlit, a bright 3D image would appear that would change its characteristics in response to variations in the light source. Now researchers have revived this art form to create tactile graphics to illustrate scientific data that shine with high resolution. according to a recent article 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 how art makes science more accessible and inclusive. Art is rescuing science from itself”. said co-author Bryan Shaw, a Baylor biochemist. “Science data and images, for example the stunning images coming out of the new Webb telescope, are inaccessible to blind people. However, we show that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all these images accessible to everyone, regardless of sight. As we like to say, ‘data for everyone.'”

The word “lithophany” derives from the Greek lithography (stone or rock) and phainein (to make appear), popularly translated as “light in stone”. The roots of this art form can be traced back to ancient China, as far back as 1,000 years before the Tang dynasty. (Historical sources describe paper-thin bowls with hidden decorations.) But to date, no actual lithophanes are known to have occurred in China before 1800.

Exactly who perfected the lithophane-making process is still debated among historians. The common 19th century process was to etch a 3D design into a thin sheet of translucent wax or porcelain using relief Y hollow engraved gemstone engraving techniques. More light would shine through the parts of the carving where the wax was thinnest.

These lithophanes were between a sixteenth of an inch and a quarter of an inch thick. They were displayed as plaques, hung in windows or in front of shields with lighted candles behind them as a source of light. Lithophanes could also serve as nightlights, fireplace screens, tea heaters, or ornaments engraved with erotic images. american industrialist samuel colt he filled his Hartford, Connecticut home with over 100 lithophanes and commissioned 111 lithophane versions of a photograph of himself to give to his friends and associates.

The technique fell out of favor after the invention of photography, but the advent of 3D printing has revived interest. Today, lithophanes are typically made from plastic, 3D printed from any 2D image that has been converted to 3D topography, according to Shaw and his co-authors, which they did with free online software. Four of those co-authors have been blind from birth or childhood, but still successfully completed their doctorates. But they are rare examples. Finding a way to create universal tactile science graphics that can be used by both blind and sighted people would remove a long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people out of science.

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