Revival of a 19th century art form of tactile scientific drawings for the blind

Zoom / 3D-printed lithophane could help visually impaired scientists “see” data, such as fingertip protein separation gels.

Ordan Kohn / Brian Shaw

In the 19th century, an art form was known as Lithovan It was all the rage in Western Europe. These fine reliefs are generally made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, a brilliant 3D image will appear which will change its characteristics in response to differences in light source. Today, researchers have resurrected this art form to create tactile graphics to illustrate glow-in-the-dark scientific data. according last paper Published in Science Advances, this lithophane is accessible to blind and sighted people, making it a universal tool for visualizing scientific data.

“This research is an example of art that makes science more accessible and complete. Art saves science from itself. Co-author Brian Shaw said:, biochemist at Baylor. “Scientific data and images – for example, the stunning images from the new Webb telescope – are inaccessible to the blind. However, we show that thin transparent haptic graphics, called lithophanes, can make all these images accessible to everyone regardless of view… As we like to say, “data for everyone”.

The word “lithophane” comes from the Greek Litho (stone or rock) and deadly (make appear), which is commonly translated as “light in the 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 until now, no actual lithophane was known in China before 1800.

Who exactly perfected the process of making lithophane is still debated among historians. A common 19th century process was to etch a three-dimensional design into a thin sheet of translucent wax or porcelain using traditional technology. Satisfaction And the engraving printing techniques. More light will shine through the parts of the sculpture where the wax was thinnest.

These lithophanes varied in thickness from one-sixteenth of an inch to one-quarter of an inch. They were displayed as paintings hung in windows or in front of shields with burning candles behind them as a source of light. Lithophanes can also be used as nightlights, fireplace screens, to warm tea, or as embossed embellishments with dramatic imagery. American industrialist Samuel Colt He filled his home in Hartford, Connecticut with over 100 lithophanes and ordered 111 copies of lithophane from a photograph of himself to give to friends and confidants.

This technology was no longer favored after the invention of photography, but the advent of 3D printing has revived interest. Today, lithophane is typically made with plastic and 3D printed from any converted 2D image into a 3D topographer, according to Shaw and his co-authors, which they did using free online software. Four of these co-authors have been blind since birth or childhood, but are still successfully completing their doctorates. But these are rare examples. Finding a way to create tactile science graphics that both blind and sighted people can use would remove a long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people from accessing science.