According to co-author and Baylor biochemist Bryan Shaw, “this research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive. Art is rescuing science from itself.”
Researchers demonstrate how thin translucent tactile graphics, or lithophanes, can make all of this imagery accessible to everyone regardless of eyesight. As they like to say, “data for all.” The data and imagery of science, such as the stunning images produced by the new Webb telescope, are inaccessible to people who are blind.
A style of art known as lithophanes was very popular in Western Europe in the 19th century. Typically, wax or porcelain, which are translucent materials, were used to create these fine engravings. A luminous 3D image that changes its appearance in response to changes in the light source would manifest when backlit. In order to produce high-resolution, tactile images that illuminate scientific data, researchers have now reintroduced this art style. These lithophanes are usable by both sighted and visually challenged persons, according to a recent article published in the Journal Science Advances, making them a universal tool for scientific data display.
The term “lithophane,” which means “light in stone,” comes from the Greek words litho (stone or rock) and phainein (to cause to emerge). The art form’s origins may go as far back as ancient China, up to 1,000 years before the Tang Dynasty. Although paper-thin bowls with hidden ornamentation are mentioned in historical literature, no authentic lithophanes are known to have existed in China before to 1800.
Historians continue to disagree on exactly who developed the technique for producing lithophanes. The typical 19th-century method entailed utilizing relief and intaglio printmaking methods to etch a 3D design into a thin sheet of translucent wax or porcelain. Where the wax was thinnest on the sculpture, more light would pass through.
Between one-sixteenth and a quarter of an inch thick, these lithophanes. They were hung in windows, presented as plaques, or placed in front of shields with candles lighted behind them for illumination. Lithophanes could also be used as tea warmers, nightlights, fireplace screens, or ornaments with sensual engravings. American businessman Samuel Colt ordered 111 lithophane copies of a portrait of himself to be placed throughout his Hartford, Connecticut, home, along with more than 100 others.
After the development of photography, the method lost popularity, but the rise of 3D printing has rekindled interest. According to Shaw and his co-authors, today’s lithophanes are often composed of plastic and 3D printed from any 2D image that has been transformed into a 3D topograph. They did this using free web tools.
Despite being born or raised blind, four of their co-authors were nonetheless able to obtain their PhDs. However, they are uncommon cases. A long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people out of the sciences would be eliminated if a method could be found to make universal tactile science visuals that both blind and sighted people could use.
Braille, tactile models, “candy-like” chemical models that can be felt with the tongue and lips, as well as text-to-audio models and interpreters are just a few examples of the technologies that are currently available to assist visually impaired graduate students in the sciences. In their remark, The Pattis specifically refer to tactile “swell forms,” which involve heating a special kind of paper such that areas containing black ink or toner swell like foam. However, some important characteristics are not necessarily topologically distinct in swell forms.