3D printed lithographs help blind communities quickly identify information and improve accessibility

Introduction: How to better create accessibility has been a hot topic in academia, especially for those in society with various disabilities, who are often entitled to certain accommodations that easily enable them to work or learn at the same level. However, despite the availability of targeted accommodations, many places are not even minimally close to normalizing the lives of people with disabilities.

Concept about 3D printing which is an innovative additive manufacturing technology for rapid prototyping and producing complex geometry or spare parts

August 27, 2022 – A Baylor University study suggests that by translating scientific data into tactile graphics through 3D printing, scientists can remove the barriers that keep blind communities excluded from chemical education. The Baylor study, entitled “Data for all: Tactile graphics that light up with a picture-perfect resolution, “The paper was published in the journal Science Advances. Link to related paper: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abq2640

In this study, Baylor researchers used 3D printing technology to turn a two-dimensional image (from data) into a 3D-printed lithograph, making it tactile and thus accessible to all. Lithographs are an ancient art medium that arose in China as early as the sixth century and became popular in Europe in the 19th century. They are thin prints made of translucent materials that initially appear opaque but glow when illuminated by a light source. The scattering of light causes thinner areas to appear brighter and thicker areas to appear darker. This study marks the first time it has been used in Science, and when combined with 3D printing, produced these graphics that allow individuals to visualize the same data universally.

Dr. Bryan Shaw, the corresponding author of the study and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, explains, “This study is an example of how art makes Science more accessible and inclusive. Scientific data and images, such as the stunning images of the new Webb telescope, are inaccessible to the blind. However, our research shows that thin, translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all these images accessible to everyone, regardless of vision.”

New research to help the blind community

In the Baylor study, blind and sighted people were required to interpret the results of the lithophanes data by touch or sight. The results showed an overall accuracy rate of about 79 percent for the testers but even higher for the blind participants in the study. The average test accuracy for blind people interpreting the five slates by touch was 96.7%, and the accuracy for sighted interpretation of the backlit slates was even 92.2%. Meanwhile, for blindfolded sighted test participants, their tactile interpretation score was 79.8%, lower than blind participants but still impressive.

Not only were the sighted participants able to interpret the data accurately, but the blind participants’ tactile accuracy was at least as good as, if not better, the visual interpretation. The lithographic prints could be made with a small commercial 3D printer, Formlabs‘ Form3B+ printer. The use of resin 3D printing enables the high visual accuracy of the data. With resin 3D printing, each stone tablet is printed at a resolution of 100 microns using a gray light-sensitive resin, thus providing an accurate message for interpretation by blind participants. The choice of 3D printing was also cost-effective: the printer was less than $5,000, making the project relatively easy to replicate at other universities.

Dashnaw concludes, “Most of the research I do every day will not significantly impact the scientific community. However, the 3D-printed lithograph project will make a real difference. We are making STEM more accessible to the visually impaired and calling attention to their general exclusion.”

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