A MATH reader for Blind Students

When I was in San Diego two weeks ago, I met with Bob Mathews, from Design Science and he mentioned a product called MathPlayer that they produce to help the visually impaired. The player reads mathematical text aloud, and you can alter the way it reads certain functions aloud (for example, you may prefer close parens or you might like it to just say parenthesis). The program understands the need to know whether a portion of a fraction is the numerator or the denominator, it understands that you would need to know when the argument of the square root ends, etc.

I asked Bob if he could find a way to share the demo that he showed me and he has put some time in to create a web page to demonstrate the product’s capabilities (thanks Bob!). You may want to open the Audio portion in a separate window so that you can still see the text that it was set up to read.

You can download the MathPlayer (free) on the Design Science website and play with it yourself. The voice is pretty mechanical-sounding, but Bob told me that if the listener has paid for an upgraded voice, it is pretty realistic.

Our college paid thousands of dollars to have a math book printed in braille last year for a blind student. With all the materials available on the Internet, we might have been able to use MathPlayer and JAWS to read the notes from one of the free online sites. There is also a possibility that the “read aloud” option may be available to read a book file provided by the publisher in the future. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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  1. mathfaery says:

    That is very cool! Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. Robert Foth says:

    Doesn’t this require that the math be written in MathML (which you need a plugin for explorer).

  3. Bob Mathews says:

    Good point, Robert, and you’re exactly correct. Since screen reader software can’t read images, and most ALT text (if present) isn’t easily read by screen readers, yes; this does require MathML. Internet Explorer (IE) isn’t the only browser that supports MathML, but IE 6+ with MathPlayer (which Maria mentions in her post) is the only configuration that supports the readable math that she mentioned, and this configuration is only available on Windows machines.

  4. Robert Foth says:

    Any chance of having a screen reader having the ability to read a gif that was created by MathType in the future (as long as it was not altered that is).

  5. Neil Soiffer says:

    I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding. The customization features of MathPlayer that Bob Mathews demonstrated at JMM are part of a development version of MathPlayer and are not part of the released version you can download from the Design Science Web site.

    The development version also has the ability to generate math braille codes such as Nemeth code for refreshable braille displays. This is in addition to the released version’s ability to generate the DotsPlus Braille/Tactile math code when using Tiger Braille Printers from ViewPlus.

    As Robert mentioned, using MathPlayer requires that the math must be encoded using MathML. While MathML usage is not widespread, there is a fair amount of it. Take a look at One Mathematical Cat for some high school math (Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II).  For college level calculus, take a look at the MIT calculus course. If you have Word+MathType, you can generate a page with MathML in it with the click of a button using MathType’s MathPage technology.

  6. Maria H. Andersen says:

    Neil, thanks for your follow-up! I’m not sure I realized it would be that easy to just take all of my thousands of pages of worksheets, quizzes, notes, etc. and make the necessary MathML with the MathPage feature. Kudos to DS for continuing to pursue work like this.

  7. Bob Mathews says:

    Giving screen reader software the ability to read a MathType-created GIF is a great idea, and in fact we’re already working on it. I’m not sure where it is in the queue, but it’ll happen. MathType 6 already saves MathML when it saves an equation as a GIF, so it’s a matter of getting MathPlayer to recognize the MathML inside the image.

    In the event that someone reading this didn’t know it already, MathType is capable of creating MathML for web pages as well. We have the whole process documented on our website.

  8. Robert Foth says:

    I prefer the gif idea since I incorporate interactive activities for my students on my online courses (swapping images to show hints and steps of a problem and an occasional rollover to show a mistake highlighted). I have not found a nice way to do this while using MathML.

    What about generating an automatic alt tag that has the correct translation of the mathematical image – this would be easier if we then alter the image by adding effects at a later time.

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