Scientists create science graphics for the blind using 19th century lithophane and 3D printing

These researchers are making science more inclusive.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Baylor University 

A research team led by Baylor University chemists has used lithophane – a 19th-century art form – and 3D printing to turn scientific data into tactile graphics that glow with a video-like resolution, according to a press release published by the institution last month.

This will allow both blind and sighted individuals to visualize the same piece of data.

Making science more accessible and inclusive

“This research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive. Art is rescuing science from itself,” said Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor.

“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,’” added Shaw, who is also corresponding author on the article.

Lithophanes are thin engravings made from translucent materials (first porcelain and wax, now plastic). At first glance, they appear opaque in ambient light, but when backlit by any light source, they glow like a digital image. In this study, the researchers used 3D printing for the lithophanes.

“The idea of lithophanes was a concept Dr. Shaw had been playing around with, and I thought it was an amazing opportunity to help a group of individuals that have been stigmatized in the field of chemistry,” said co-lead author Jordan Koone, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Baylor and member of Shaw’s lab. “It has been awesome to see blind people who have been told their entire life they could not excel in the fields of science interpret data just as easily as a sighted person.”

The researchers tested the lithophanes on both sighted and blind students. The study found that the average test accuracy for all five lithophanes was: 96.7 percent for blind tactile interpretation and 92.2 percent for sighted interpretation of back-lit lithophanes.

Answering unanswered questions

“Before working on the lithophane project, I believed research was limited to experiments done in a laboratory setting,” said co-lead author Chad Dashnaw, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Baylor also in Shaw’s lab.

“But research is just trying to answer unanswered questions, and our work here is answering a very important one: Can blind persons be a part of STEM? Lithophanes provide a data format that can be universally shared between sighted and blind individuals making STEM more accessible to those who have previously been overlooked.”

Shaw said the best thing about the new development is that it gives sighted and blind people a common ground.

“The neat thing about the tactile graphics that light up with picture-perfect resolution is that everything I can see with my eyes, another person who is blind can feel with their fingers. So it makes all of the high-resolution imagery and data accessible and shareable, regardless of eyesight. We can sit around with anyone, blind or sighted, and talk about the exact same piece of data or image,” Shaw concluded.

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