Study combines lithophane, 3D printing to enable individuals to ‘see’ data regardless of level of eyesight: Scientists use old-fashioned art form and 3D printing to make major advance in eliminating exclusion of individuals with blindness or low vision from chemistry and other life sciences

A research team led by Baylor University chemists has taken a groundbreaking step forward in eliminating the exclusion of individuals with blindness from chemistry education and experiences. In an article published today in Science Advances, the researchers detail how they used lithophane — an old-fashioned art form — and 3D printing to turn scientific data into tactile graphics that glow with video-like resolution, enabling universal visualization of the same piece of data by both blind and sighted individuals.

Although the lithophane is an ancient artistic medium, it has never been used — until now — to represent scientific data and imagery in a quantitative, controlled manner for tactile visualization and tactile integration.

The Baylor study — “Data for all: Tactile graphics that light up with picture-perfect resolution”” — compared how blind and sighted people interpreted lithophane data by touch or eyesight. The participant cohorts tested the five lithophane forms — gel electropherograms, micrographs, electronic and mass spectra, and textbook illustrations — interpreting all five lithophanes by tactile sensing or eyesight at 79% overall accuracy, according to the study.

The researchers focused on creating and testing lithophanes of data found in the chemical sciences because of the explicit and systematic exclusion of students with blindness from chemistry, which the researchers noted “can be viewed as a virtue by educators, parents, peers or self, on the basis of laboratory safety and the ‘visual’ nature of chemistry.”

“This research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive. Art is rescuing science from itself,” said Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who leads the Shaw Research Group at Baylor and is corresponding author on the journal article. “The data and imagery of science — for example, the stunning images coming out from the new Webb telescope — are inaccessible to people who are blind. We show, however, that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all of this imagery accessible to everyone regardless of eyesight. As we like to say, ‘data for all.'”

New use for old art form

Likely created in China as early as the sixth century and popularized in Europe in the 1800s, lithophanes are thin engravings made from translucent materials (first porcelain and wax, now plastic) and initially appear opaque in ambient light. However, when back lit by any light source — from a ceiling light to sunlight — a lithophane glows like a digital image, with the scattering of light through the translucent material causing thinner regions to appear brighter and thicker regions to appear darker. Using free online software to convert a two-dimensional image to a 3D topograph, scientists in this study used 3D printing for the lithophanes.

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