3D-printed lithophane helps blind scientists
Expanding / 3D-printed lithophane helps blind scientists “see” data from protein separation gels and more at their fingertips.

Odan Coune/Brian Shaw

In the 19th century, an art form known as lithophant became all the rage in Western Europe. These thin sculptures were usually made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, it displays a glowing 3D image whose features change as the light source changes. Now researchers are reviving this art form, creating tactile graphics to explain glowing scientific data in high definition. According to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances, these lithophanes are accessible to the sighted and visually impaired, making them a universal visualization tool for scientific data.

“This study is an example of how art is making science more accessible and inclusive. Art is escaping science from itself,” said Baylor biochemist and co-author Brian Shaw. “Scientific data and images, such as the stunning images coming out of the new Webb telescope, are inaccessible to the blind. It shows that you can create it, it’s accessible to everyone, regardless of vision, and what we want to say is ‘data for everyone’.”

The word “lithophane” comes from the Greek Litho (stone or rock) and Finene (to make it appear), commonly translated as “the light in the stone.” The roots of the art form can be traced back to ancient China, a thousand years before the Tang Dynasty. (Historical sources describe paper-thin bowls with hidden decorations.) However, to this day it is not known that actual lithophan was in China before 1800. Is not …

Exactly who completed the process of making litophane is still debated among historians. A common 19th-century process involved etching 3D designs into thin sheets of translucent wax or porcelain using traditional relief and intaglio printing techniques. More light shines through the parts of the sculpture where the wax is thinnest.

These litophanes were 1/16 to 1/4 inch thick. They were displayed as plaques, hung in front of windows or shields, and lit with candles as a light source behind them. Litophane can also serve as a night light, a fireplace screen, a tea warmer, or an ornament engraved with erotic images.American businessman Samuel Colt built his Hartford, Connecticut home into one of his 100 pieces. Filled with the above Litophanes, I asked them to give 111 Lithophane versions of their photos to their friends and colleagues.

After the invention of photography, the technology fell out of favor, but with the advent of 3D printing, interest has been revived. Today, Litophane is commonly made of plastic and 3D printed from any 2D image of him converted to a 3D topograph. According to Shaw and his co-authors, they used free online software to do it. Four of these co-authors, who were blind from birth or childhood, have successfully completed their Ph.D. But those are rare cases. Finding a way to create universal tactile scientific graphics that can be used by blind and sighted people alike can remove the long-standing barriers that keep many blind people away from science.

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