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Baylor Study Combines Lithophane, 3D Printing to Make Scientific Data Accessible to Everyone 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
August 17, 2022
A 3D readout of a protein gel.

3D-printed lithophanes can help optically impaired scientists “see” data, such as from protein separation gels, with their fingertips. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Shaw.

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 both blind and sighted individuals to universally visualize the same piece of data.

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.

“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.’”