Looks like someone's attempting to accomplish what Rockbox has done for
quite some time now.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Audio Menus for iPods
By Kate Greene
Download an MP3 version of this story
703 Researchers are testing ways to let people listen to gadget menu
instead of looking at them.
Clicking through the menu on your iPod demands a significant
visual attention, which can be a hassle (while jogging) and even
(while driving). But engineers at the University of Toronto and
Research are working on software that could make it possible to
the menus of gadgets that use circular touch pads, like the iPod,
looking at them--only audio cues would be used.
The researchers have designed an auditory menu technique--called
earPod--that provides audio feedback when a person drags his or
around the touch pad. Although it's not ready to replace the
menus on real iPods, the results are encouraging, says Patrick
research scientist at Microsoft Research, in Seattle, who worked
Within 30 minutes of beginning to use the technology, people can
two levels of earPod menus faster than traditional visual menus,
"Requiring constant visual attention while using a PC is
Baudisch, "but if you're using an iPod on the road, [constant
attention] is unreasonable." In addition to giving people back
he says, audio menus could help gadgets save battery life by not
energy on a screen, and they could add functions to the
devices such as the iPod shuffle.
The idea of using audio menus isn't new. Auditory interfaces can,
all, be found in touch-tone phone menus and in various assisted
technologies for seeing-impaired users. But historically, handheld
consumer gadgets haven't widely used audio menus. There are a few
for this, says Bruce Walker, professor in the school of psychology
college of computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.
One reason, he says, is that audio hardware and software have
resource intensive, requiring significant amounts of computation
energy. In addition, audio software has been difficult to
But computing power is becoming cheaper, and there is an
to find different ways to interact with handheld devices, says
Within the past 10 years, he says, the ubiquity of mobile devices
small displays "has made us all visually impaired." Currently
only a handful of researchers who are systematically looking at
make better audio interfaces for various devices, but Walker
ranks to grow in the coming years.
This first earPod prototype has a two-level menu hierarchy with 8
per category, for a total of 64 items. To test how well people use
system, the researchers assigned to the first menu level a random
assortment of categories: "clothing," "fish," "instrument,"
four others. The next level contained eight examples of these
iPod analogy would be found in the opening menu, which includes
"extras," "settings," and then lower menus that include
"artists," and "albums," for instance. The earPod approach could
extended to read off a limited number of names of artists and
EarPod was designed specifically for gadgets with circular touch
says Baudisch. The circular touch pad is evenly divided into eight
sectors: it's cut like pieces of a pie, with each menu item
with each piece. When a person touches the dial of an
gadget, the audio menu responds with a prerecorded human voice. If
person puts his or her finger at 12 o'clock on the touch pad, the
might say "Color," indicating that the finger is on the color
the finger crosses one of these invisible sector lines, the user
clicking sound. As a finger moves, a new menu item is announced.
an item and go to the next menu level, the user lifts his or her
and hears a "camera-shutter" sound, which indicates that an item
Because the touch pad is divided into portions, says Baudisch,
easily learn where menu items are and quickly jump to certain
without having to scroll through a list, as with an iPod. Another
of earPod, he says, is that a user doesn't need to wait until a
is read before moving on to another. When a finger moves to a new
the audio is interrupted and the new item is announced.
In the earPod usability study, conducted by Shengdong Zhao, a
student at the University of Toronto, and project lead, the
found that people who had no experience using either an iPod or an
earPod-equipped device used the devices with equal accuracy.
92.1 percent accurate, while the visual system was 93.9 percent
but the difference was not statistically significant. It took
longer to grow accustomed to earPod, but with experience, users'
performance on the audio menu became faster. After 30 minutes of
on both devices, subjects could navigate two levels of menu with
2.1 seconds as opposed to 2.5 seconds with the visual menu.
Georgia Tech's Walker is impressed with the earPod approach and
"My overall impression is that this is great ... It was
to look at how to take an interface that is purely visual on the
turn it into an interface that's purely auditory, because, after
iPod's an auditory device. Why should a person have to pull their
out while they're jogging to look at it?"
Currently, however, earPod could not be a complete replacement for
menu, Walker notes. One reason is that earPod doesn't lend itself
flexibility. Once a person learns the position of the menu items,
she might become frustrated if those positions need to change due
software update or added playlist. In particular, the approach
work well for menus such as mobile-phone address books, Walker
In addition, adds Baudisch, because the circular track pad is
sectors, there are a limited number of menu items that a person
access. If there are 8 sectors, each with 8 menu items, then there
only 64 total items accessible on the device, and this wouldn't be
enough for iPods that hold hundreds of playlists and thousands of
However, Baudisch suspects that future prototypes will provide
ways to get
around the problem. He and his team are exploring how people
faster audio output (speeding up the recorded voice) and how
audio and visual cues simultaneously. Developing an
interface for eyes-free operations on auditory devices is still a
project, he says.
Received on 2007-05-15