The Mathtalk Program
Algebra, blind people, synthetic speech, prosody,
glancing, algebra earcons.
Mathtalk and Maths
Mathtalk was developed by Robert Stevens at the University of York.
Many of the ideas developed within this project have been taken on and expanded within the Maths project (Mathematical Access for TecHnology and Science for visually disabled people).
This page describes Mathtalk, but most of the material is equally relevant to Maths.
(The sound recordings in the examples on these pages have been recorded to high and low qualities. The high quality ones sound better - but will take longer to arrive. You can choose which quality you want to hear by selecting either 'High' or 'Low'.)
Algebra notation is a vital component of many scientific, technical
and mathematical disciplines. The inability to use standard algebra
notation efficiently and effectively can be a disadvantage in
education and subsequent employment. Algerba notation relies heavily
on the use of pencil and paper, often using complex structures that lack
redundancy. The loss of any one symbol or grouping boundary within an
expression can radically alter its meaning. Not being able to use
pencil and paper, or braille can mean mathematics becomes
inaccessible to many blind people.
The Mathtalk program speaks standard algebra notation using a speech
synthesiser. It can be used to give blind people the opportunity to
read algebra actively, rather than listen passively. To do this the
design of the Mathtalk program concentrates on the issues of external
memory and control of information flow. Paper holds
information external to the reader's own memory, thus relieving him or
her of the burden of holding all that information. The visual system
is able to shift attention rapidly and focus upon any part of the
structure with accuracy.
The prosodic component of speech has been used to improve the utility
of synthetic speech as an external memory. Prosody (the rhythm,
pitch, amplitude and tempo of speech) can be used to indicate the
structure of an utterance. It also aids retention of an expression's
content and reduces the mental workload associated with the listening task.
The Mathtalk program adds prosody to spoken algebra to make it easier to listen to.
The second element of the Mathtalk program is the control of the information
flow. This is achieved using browsing functions and an associated
command language. A structure based browsing through a language
designed to give the speed and accuracy
necessary for active reading.
The last component of the Mathtalk program was an audio glance.
This could be used to give a high-level view of the structure of an
expression, without any of its detail. Such a glance could be used to
help a reader plan use of browsing functions and anticipate elements
of the expression to come.
The audio glance is based on earcons (the audio
equivalent of icons) and were called algebra earcons. Each structural
component of an expression is associated with a musical timbre and the
structure of the expression, together with the prosodic form gave the
The Mathtalk program only allows reading. The Maths project
aims to produce a mathematics workstation upon which someone can read,
write and manipulate mathematics using a multi-media interface
containing speech, braille and enhanced visual display.
Maths Project publications.
Return to Robert Stevens' home page.