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

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enlarge / 3D-printed lithophanes could 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 was all the rage in Western Europe. These thin carvings were usually made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. Backlit, a glowing 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 images to illustrate scientific data that light up at high resolution. According to a recent article published in the journal Science Advances, these lithophanes are accessible to sighted and partially sighted 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 saves science from itself,” said study co-author Bryan Shaw, a biochemist at Baylor. “The data and images from science — for example, the stunning images coming out of the new Webb telescope — are inaccessible to people who are blind. However, we show that thin, translucent tactile images, called lithophanes, can make all these images accessible.” for everyone, regardless of eyesight. As we like to say, ‘data for all’.”

The word “lithophane” is derived from the Greek lithograph (stone or rock) and phainein (appear), colloquially translated as “light in stone.” The roots of the art form date back to ancient China, as far as 1,000 years before the Tang Dynasty. (Historical sources describe wafer-thin bowls with hidden decorations.) But to date, no real lithophanes are known in China before 1800.

Who exactly perfected the process of making lithophanes is still debated among historians. The usual 19th century process involved etching a 3D design into a thin sheet of translucent wax or porcelain using traditional embossing and intaglio techniques. More light would shine through the areas of the carving where the wax was thinnest.

These lithophanes were between one-sixteenth of an inch to a quarter-inch thick. They were displayed as plaques, hung in windows or in front of shields with burning candles behind them as a light source. Lithophanes can also serve as night lamps, fireplace screens, tea warmers or ornaments engraved with erotic images. American industrialist Samuel Colt filled his home in Hartford, Connecticut, with more than 100 lithophanes and commissioned 111 lithophane versions of a photograph of himself to give to friends and acquaintances.

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

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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