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

Zoom / 3D-printed lithophane could help scientists with visual impairments “see” data, such as protein-separating gels with their fingertips.

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 usually made of translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, a glowing 3D image will appear that will change its features in response to differences in the light source. Now researchers have resurrected this art form to create touch graphics to illustrate glow-in-the-dark scientific data. according to last paper Published in Science Advances, this lithophane is accessible to blind and sighted people, making it a universal visualization tool for scientific data.

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

The word “lithophane” is derived from the Greek Litho (stone or boulder) and mortals (to cause to appear), which is popularly translated as “light in stone”. The roots of this art form may be traced back to ancient China, up to 1,000 years before the Tang Dynasty. (Historical sources describe thin paper bowls with hidden decorations.) But until now, it was not known that actual lithophane stones existed in China before 1800.

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

These lithophanes ranged in thickness from one sixteenth of an inch to a quarter of an inch. They were displayed as paintings hung in windows or in front of shields with lit candles behind them as a source of light. Lithophanes can also be used as night lights, fireplace screens, to warm tea, or as embellishments embossed with dramatic pictures. American industrial Samuel Colt He filled his home in Hartford, Connecticut, with more than 100 lithophane, and commissioned 111 copies of lithophane from a photograph of him to give to friends and colleagues.

This technology was no longer preferred 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 2D image converted 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, yet are still successfully completing their Ph.D. But they are rare examples. Finding a way to create tactile science graphics that blind and sighted individuals can use would remove a long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people out of science.

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