In the 19th century there was an art form known as lithophane was all the rage in Western Europe. These thin engravings were usually made from translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, a luminous 3D image would appear that would change its properties in response to variations in the light source. Now researchers have revived this art form to create tactile graphics illustrating scientific data that glow at high resolution. according to a newer paper These lithophane, published in the journal Science Advances, are accessible to sighted and visually impaired 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 co-author Bryan Shaw, a biochemist at Baylor. “Science’s data and images — for example, the stunning images coming from the new Webb telescope — are inaccessible to the blind. However, we show that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophane, can create all of these images accessible to everyone, regardless of vision. As we like to say, ‘data for everyone’.”
The word “lithophane” comes from the Greek litho (stone or rock) and phainein (let appear), popularly translated as “light in stone”. The art form’s roots may date back to ancient China, as far back as 1,000 years before the Tang Dynasty. (Historical sources describe wafer-thin shells with hidden decorations.) However, no true pre-1800 lithophane in China is known to date.
Exactly who perfected the process of making lithophane is still debated among historians. The common 19th-century process involved etching a 3D design into a thin slab of translucent wax or porcelain in the traditional manner Help and intaglio printing techniques. More light would shine through the parts of the carving where the wax was thinnest.
These lithophane were between one-sixteenth of an inch and one-fourth of an inch thick. They were exhibited as plaques, hung in windows or in front of shields behind which were lit candles as a source of light. Lithophane could also serve as night lights, fireplace screens, tea cosies or ornaments engraved with erotic images. American industrialist Sam Colt filled his home in Hartford, Connecticut with more than 100 lithophane and commissioned 111 lithophane versions of a photograph of himself to give to friends and co-workers.
The technique fell out of favor after the invention of photography, but the advent of 3D printing has revived interest. Today, lithophane are typically made of plastic, 3D printed from any 2D image, which Shaw and his co-authors said was converted into a 3D topogram, which they did using free online software. Four of these co-authors have been blind since birth or childhood, but have nevertheless successfully completed their doctorates. But they are rare examples. Finding a way to create universal tactile scientific graphics that both blind and sighted people can use would remove a long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people away from science.
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