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Subspecialties Imaging & Diagnostics, Health Economics and Policy, Education and Training

An Elephant in the (Research) Room

Credit: Image sourced from Unsplash.com

Visual impairment creates a significant barrier to accessing graphical data in scientific and medical research. To address this issue, a group of visually impaired and blind researchers have teamed up with Baylor University in Waco, Texas, USA, to present a solution: tactile and visual data representation through 3D-printed lithophanes (1). Data presented in 3D lithophanes can be processed through touch and can be seen when held up to a light source.

People with visual impairment or blindness who wish to access data are limited to rarely produced resources such as audio descriptions, Braille, or physical models. A major criticism of these data representations is that they can be of low resolution or quality and do not compare to the information sighted people can obtain. Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, study author and postdoctoral researcher at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, compared his experience of deciphering research figures with limited vision to the parable of the blind men and the elephant (2). In this story, a group of blind men encountering an elephant for the first time describe it based on the only body part in each man’s reach; naturally, the descriptions of the elephant vary wildly from tusk to tail, resulting in an incomplete image – and a disagreement. But, through the use of five separate lithophanes of an SDS-PAGE gel, mass spectra, UV-vis spectra, electron microscopy, or a graphical representation of protein topology, the researchers found an average accuracy of 96.7 percent for blind tactile interpretation, 92.2 percent for sighted interpretation of lit lithophanes, and 79.8 percent for blindfolded tactile interpretation in their 360-person test group. The fact that blind tactile accuracy was generally equal to or greater than visual interpretation is a good indicator that lithophanes could be used for effective data presentation for visually impaired or blind researchers and clinicians.

The lithophanes were created by converting 2D images to 3D topographical images using free online software and then 3D printing them. As 3D printing grows ever more accessible, lithophanes show great promise for regular use in clinics and laboratories. This may result in a widespread change in data accessibility for visually impaired and blind clinicians, researchers, educators, and policymakers.

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  1. JC Koone et al., Sci Adv, 8, eabq2640 (2022). PMID: 35977019.
  2. K Irving, Science (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3dCzOeQ.
About the Author
Geoffrey Potjewyd

Associate Editor, The Ophthalmologist

The lion’s share of my PhD was spent in the lab, and though I mostly enjoyed it (mostly), what I particularly liked was the opportunity to learn about the latest breakthroughs in research. Communicating science to a wider audience allows me to scratch that itch without working all week only to find my stem cell culture has given up the ghost on the Friday (I’m not bitter). Fortunately for me, it turns out writing is actually fun – so by working for Texere I get to do it every day, whilst still being an active member of the clinical and research community.

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