A New Way to Read, Not
By Mark Tosczak, Wired, Sep. 25, 2002
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Jason Morris uses a trackball to move a cursor across a map of
ancient Britain dotted with Roman forts and cities. As he
passes over a location, a speech synthesizer pronounces the
name -- and will spell it, too, as sometimes the computer's
Latin pronunciation isn't up to snuff.
When the cursor passes over land, the sound of horses
galloping comes from the computer's speakers. Move it over
water and the sound of waves breaking on a beach emanates.
If he's wearing stereo headphones, Morris will even hear the
sound in the correct "location" relative to the cursor -- to
the left or right, for instance.
The software, developed as part of an undergraduate computer
science class project, could give Morris, a graduate student
in the classics department at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill, access to maps that sighted students take for
"Up until this time, the blind have been more or less shut out
of geographic research," he said.
The map-navigation software, dubbed Blind Audio Tactile
Mapping System (BATS), takes digital map information and
provides nonvisual feedback as a user moves a cursor across
BATS began as a software engineering class project last
spring. Computer science professor Gary Bishop had been
looking for a blind student to help with accessibility
projects when he met Morris on a street.
Morris, who uses a guide dog to help him navigate, asked
Bishop what street he was on; Bishop told him he was on a
sidewalk and the two began chatting.
As it turns out, Morris had been developing classical world
maps accessible to blind people at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ancient
World Mapping Center. He had been working with a technology
that allows raised bumps to be printed on paper, which means
Braille symbols, for instance, could be printed on a map,
along with some simple features like coastlines, rivers and
But such a map doesn't offer as much information as a
similarly sized traditional map, because Braille letters take
up more space, and it shares the same ultimate page-size
limitation of any printed map.
Bishop said he could do better. Last spring, he presented the
problem as a choice for a required class project in his
software engineering class.
Of the projects the student teams could choose from, "This one
actually seemed somewhat interesting and useful," said Chad
Haynes, a student on the project who has since graduated. "It
was definitely something that hadn't been done before."
The team chose Python as their programming language because
they could write cleaner, faster code more easily in it. But
Haynes was the only one in the group who had coded in that
language before, so the other four students had to learn
Python as well as solve the various technical and interface
The students -- Haynes, plus Thomas Logan, Shawn Hunter, Elan
Dassani and Anthony Perkins -- were so excited about the
project that toward the end of the class they asked Bishop if
they could continue to work on it during the summer. Bishop
made some phone calls and got funding from Microsoft to pay
the students while they added improvements and refinements
Having Morris available to discuss solutions and test ideas
was invaluable to the group. An early prototype used a stylus
and touch screen, but Morris found holding the pen up to the
screen tiring. A trackball turned out to be simpler and
A new group of students, under Bishop's supervision, is
working to add tactile feedback, using vibrating and
force-feedback mice and trackballs.
Bishop envisions the software as an open-source project, and
executable code and an installer can be downloaded from the
Even while the software was in a fairly primitive stage last
spring, Morris used it to help write a paper. "Without that
map I don't think I would have been able to do any of the
things I did," he said. "I drool over the possibilities of
what we could have done with what we have now."