2012. Vol.3, No.5, 410-418
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2012.35058
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Enhancing Accessibility of Visual Information via Sound:
Metaphoric Association versus Rule-Based Mapping*
Orit Shenkar1,2#, Daniel Algom3
1Department of Occupational Therapy, Ono Academic College, Kiryat Ono, Israel
2The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
3Department of Psychology , Tel-Aviv University, T e l -A viv , Israel
Received March 6th, 2012; revised April 5th, 2012; accepted May 4th, 2012
The goal of this study was to develop and test methods for enhancing accessibility of visual information
through conversion to sound. In three experiments, normally sighted and visually impaired participants
learned to associate sounds to referent visual stimuli. The conversion included an experience-based
method that made use of natural sounds of objects and a rule-based method, which produced an appropri-
ate “auditory graph” via a precise function. Learning was easier with the first method but an appreciable
transfer of learning was only observed with the second method. Rendering the visual input highly acces-
sible, these methods are capable of improving activities of daily living.
Keywords: Sonification; Learning; Transfer of Learning; Visually Impaired
Vision is the primary channel for processing perceptual in-
formation in everyday life. It is the main vehicle enabling iden-
tification of objects, orientation in space, and adaptation to
changes that occur in familiar environments. Individuals with
impaired vision are at a disadvantage in all of these vital func-
tions. The use of alternative ways of representing visual infor-
mation thus is essential for people with visual impairment, but
it can also benefit individuals who must address large amounts
of visual data. The purpose of this study was to characterize
learning and transfer of learning with two different methods of
representing visual data by sounds. We compared the ease (or
difficulty) of using a metaphoric method by which visual im-
ages are represented by characteristic sounds with that of an
analytic, rule-based method, with participants who are normally
sighted and those who have visual impairment.
Sonification is the use of speech and non-speech sounds to
represent visual data (Walker & Cothran, 2003). In recent years,
sonification has been studied to determine optimal strategies for
providing acoustic representations of visual information in
daily life (e.g., Cabrera & Ferguson, 2007; Nees & Walker,
2007; Pirhonen, 2007). For example, Keller et al. (2003) dem-
onstrated the usefulness of sonification for representing gamma
ray data from the planet Mars. The auditory representations
entailed various musical instruments (bell, orchestra, or gui-
tar/bass), phase cha racteristic (beat s, sustained notes) as well a s
basic sound parameters (pitch, loudness, volume). The results
showed that the auditory group performed on a par with a group
viewing the same data and with a group presented with joint
visual-auditory stimuli. Moreover, the participants in the audi-
tory and the combination groups exhibited greater interest and
engagement levels than the participants in the vision group.
Testing statistical parameters and numeric data, Flowers and
Hauer (1992) found that key features of the data were equally
accessible via auditory and visual graphs. Moreover, the par-
ticipants easily discerned the kinship between pairs of auditory
or visual graphs representing the same referent data. In a sub-
sequent study (Flower & Hauer, 1993), the authors included
bimodal presentations in addition to visual and acoustic ones
and found that the visual displays were the easiest and the bi-
modal ones the most difficult. Nevertheless, multidimensional
scaling revealed that people accessed the same underlying di-
mensions when evaluating the input regardless of the mode
surface presentation (see also, Flowers & Hauer, 1995, Flowers,
Buchman, & Turnage, 1997, and Bonebright, Nees, Connerley,
& McCain, 2001, for essentially similar results).
Clearly, existing research demonstrates that converting visual
data to sounds is a potent vehicle for enhancing information
processing. It enables good performance, both as the sole input
and jointly with visual presentation. It is also clear that em-
ploying an alternative means of representing information, a
means that does not rely on vision, can well serve sighted peo-
Auditory Representation with the
Kamel, Roth, and Sinha (2001) asked people who are blind
or who have visual impairment to locate a given shape (e.g., a
triangle) on the computer screen by putting the cursor on the
target location. The results showed that participants who re-
ceived auditory help navigating the space performed better than
those who did not. Several features of this study are noteworthy.
Harnessing the auditory system for orientation in space differs
from the tactic used in other studies that examined this ability
*We thank Miriam Furst and Noomi Katz for their help in various stages o
the complet io n of this study .
#Correspo n ding author.
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
with the help of a combination of sensory systems (e.g., Bly,
1982; Jacobson, 1998). The use of tones (i.e., the absence of
speech) for orientation in space is another notable feature. This
goes beyond the manipulations in James’ (1998) study entailing
an auditory interface that incorporated speech and non-speech
sounds to represent the structure of HTML documents.
Salient among the advanced technological tools available to
assist orientation with people who are blind in is a device de-
veloped by Meijer (1992). It consists of a miniature camera, a
mobile computer, and headphones. The camera is mounted on
the user’s head and converts video input into auditory informa-
tion. Its sophistication granted, there is, to date, no clear evi-
dence on the effectiveness of Meijer’s system.
To recap, the research in the field of sonification holds great
potential. Valuable information has been collected to advance
our understanding of cross modal representations. Nevertheless,
the results have not accumulated in a fully systematic fashion.
The choice of auditory parameters to represent visual ones var-
ied across studies and appears to be quite arbitrary. For exam-
ple, the visual horizontal dimension was represented by beat
repetition in some studies, by lateralization in additional studies,
and by various musical instruments in yet other studies.
The Present Study: Metaphoric and Analytic
Methods for Auditory Representation
In the metaphoric method, a unique sound substituted each
visual image. For natural stimuli, we used the characteristic
sound that they produce (e.g., a cat’s meow, a dog’s bark). Such
representations are based on learning acquired over a lifetime.
For images that do not have “natural” sounds, we selected arbi-
trary ones to represent them (e.g., the playing of a ram’s horn to
represent a square, playing the guitar to represent a circle).
Such sounds lack, of course, meaning but repeated exposure
helped the learner to “glue” them to their visual referents. This
metaphoric method is easily learned but this advantage is offset
to a certain extent by reliance on the specific visual-auditory
The “analytic” method was a rule-based representation by
which values of a pair of continuous auditory variables replaced
each point in the visual space. The outline drawing of a stimu-
lus (say, that of a dog) was considered as a graph of a function
in (unseen) Cartesian coordinates. The coordinates of each
point along the graph were converted onto auditory variables
standing for the abscissa and th e ordinate. The former was rep-
resented by the differences in loudness between the two ears
(lateralization or stereo effect), whereas the latter was repre-
sented by sound frequency or pitch. The auditory graph thus
created was played to the participant through headphones in
order to replace its visual referent. Of course, the auditory
graph extends in time, whereas the visual one extends in space.
To standardize the representation, the “song” always started at
the lower left of the figure, proceeding to its right, moving up-
ward, and turning left before descending back to the starting
point at the lower left.
Take the outline drawing of a cat for an illustration of learn-
ing with the two methods. In the metaphoric method, the cat
was represented by the sound of mewing. In the analytic
method, a continuous sound stood for the drawing of the cat,
starting from the lower left. The sound “moved” in the auditory
space from left to right, then it increased in pitch, after which it
moved back from right to left. At the upper left it decreased in
pitch returning the starting point again, at the lower left. Of
course, all the “curves” of the cat were represented by the cor-
responding fine-tuned local changes in pitch and location of the
In the following series of experiments, we performed a sys-
tematic comparison of the process of learning and of the extent
of transfer of learning obtained with the metaphoric and the
analytic methods of representations. Persons with intact sight
took part in the first two experiments, whereas individuals with
impaired vision participated in the third experiment. We at-
tempted to assess the relative advantages and costs associated
with each method of representation. A unique feature of this
study that its methods are theory based and not merely provi-
sional means for ready application. Due to its theoretical basis,
the outcome distinguishes between the rival approaches and the
results generalize into entire classes of to-be-developed inter-
ventions besides the current ones.
The participants were 12 young women and men (6 females
and 6 males) from two selective high schools in Jerusalem and
in the Sharon county of Israel. They were between 16 and 18
years of age. All had normal or corrected-to-normal vision and
hearing, were right handed, and none suffered from any (known)
physical damage. The participants served in a two experimental
sessions lasting approximately one hour each.
Apparatus and Stimuli
The visual stimuli were outline drawings of objects. The ob-
jects were familiar stimuli from the environment (bell, dog, car,
airplane, boat, dolphin, hammer, and duck) and familiar geo-
metric shapes (three different-shaped triangles, two differ-
ent-shaped rectangles, a diamond, a circle, and a square). The
drawings were created via standard Paint and FreeHand pro-
grams with a line width of 1.5 mm. The drawings were pre-
sented on the 14 LCD screen of a Compaq’s mobile computer,
Presario model 2100, set at a resolution of 768 × 1024 pixels.
The drawings appeared black over the white background of the
screen. Eight drawings (eight environmental objects or eight
geometric shapes) appeared on a trial. Each drawing appeared
within a 3 × 3 matrix. Each cell contained a visual object, ex-
cept for the empty central cell.
For the metaphoric method, we used familiar sounds to rep-
resent the environmental objects. The sounds were bell ringing,
barking, engine ignition, and plane takeoff, boat-horn, sound of
a dolphin, hammer’s tapping, and the quack of a duck. We used
musical sounds (piano, guitar, trumpet, drums, castanets,
chimes, cymbals, and harmonica) to represent the geometric
shapes. The particular musical sound assigned to represent a
geometric shape varied from participant to participant.
In the analytic method, the sounds were produced via a spe-
cially created (Matlab) program. The points along the visual
shape were converted into tones of different location in the
interaural space and of differing pitch. The values of localiza-
tion and pitch changed in a continuous manner, governed by the
variation of the line in the drawing. The program produced
subjective lateralization through appropriate differences in the
intensity of the sounds fed in to the left and the right ears. Pitch
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 411
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
was created by changes in frequency. Location stood for hori-
zontal values along the abscissa and pitch for values along the
ordinate. Via the continuous changes in location and pitch, the
“auditory graph” reproduced faithfully the visual shape in the
Again, these representations were implemented via a soft-
ware that we developed specifically for training and testing
users at perceiving visual graphs via auditory feedback. The
software allowed for representation of both environmental ob-
jects and geometrical shapes, indeed of any function in a
two-dimensional space. Sound frequency ranged between 500 -
1000 Hz. Differences in loudness between the two ears ranged
between 0 - 40 dB. The auditory “graph” lasted 10 s on average
(due to the approximately constant size of the shapes). The
average loudness level was normalized at 60 dB SPL. The par-
ticipants listened to the auditory stimuli via Panasonic’s
stereophonic headphones (model RP-HT21).
Because the association of metaphoric sounds with environ-
mental objects is trivial (one does not have to learn that barking
is associated with dogs), we used the following three conditions:
metaphoric representation of geometric shapes, analytic repre-
sentation of environmental objects, and analytic representation
of geometric shapes. Each participant performed only in one of
the three conditions. Thus, a random four of the participants
matched metaphoric sounds to geometric shapes, another four
matched “auditory graphs” to such shapes, and the remaining
four participants matched “auditory graphs” to environmental
objects. Before performing with the analytic method, the par-
ticipant received explanations concerning the principles of the
method followed by illustrations.
On a trial, the eight shapes (environmental or geometric)
were presented on the screen, arranged within a 3 × 3 matrix of
squares. After 350 ms, a sound was played. The participant’s
task was to select the shape that corresponded to that sound.
The participant indicated her or his response manually by
pressing the appropriate key on a parallel 3 × 3 response pad.
Feedback was provided after each response (a sound of ap-
plause for a correct response and a buzzer for an incorrect one).
The acquisition of the association between a particular sound
and a particular visual stimulus proceeded as follows. Upon the
presentation of the sound, the participant selected one of the
eight visual shapes on the screen. Correct responding was fol-
lowed by the feedback of the sound of applause. After 350 ms,
the same eight stimuli appeared in another spatial arrangement,
followed by another sound stimulus. Incorrect responding was
followed by the feedback of the sound of buzzer. The same
stimuli within the same spatial arrangement followed by the
same sound were presented again. In case of another incorrect
response, the same procedure was repeated. A correct response,
in contrast, was followed by the previously described proce-
This method of learning resulted in the establishment of the
correct association between each of the visual stimuli and each
of the subsequent sound stimuli. We defined the correct acqui-
sition of the eight visual-auditory associations as the comple-
tion of the entire stimulus-response mappings without error.
Each participant went through eight such cycles per a learning
session. Learning was gauged by the number of errors per cy-
In order to sustain motivation, we offered monetary rewards
for good performance. The size of the reward was conditioned
on the participant’s performance. A reduction in the number of
errors (up to 50%) between the first and the second session
yielded the reward of 20 NIS. The reward was increased to 50
NIS when the errors went down beyond 50%.
The particip ants were tested individually in a dimly lit room.
The participant was seated at a distance of approximately 60 cm
from the computer screen. The instructions were as follows:
“Your task is to match a sound played via the headphones to
one of the objects presented on the screen. Select your response
by pressing the key on the pad that corresponds to the location
of the appropriate shape. Please respond promptly but without
making mistakes.” The participant was then assigned to one of
the three conditions in a random fashion. The experimental
session ended after learning the eight combinations to the pre-
scribed criterion. A day later the participant returned to the
laboratory to perform in a second learning session with the
same visual and sound stimuli. Each session ended after the
presentation of eight cycles, and lasted one hour on average.
Results and Discussion
The three panels of Figure 1 present the results of the learn-
ing in the three conditions. The data are classified by cycle of
learning (in a given session) and by session. We tested by
ANOVA the influence of these independent variables on the
dependent measure of errors. Salient to visual inspection is the
improvement between sessions as well as a graduate less visible
learning within each session. In the condition in which meta-
phoric sounds where associated with geometric shapes, the
main factor of session was highly reliable [Panel A, F(1, 16) =
53.32, p < .001], although that for cycle was not [Panel A, F(1,
16) = 1.54, p > .05]. The lack of a session x cycle interaction
[F(7, 16) = 43.67, p > .05] showed that any learning that took
place within the two sessions was similar. For analytic repre-
sentation of the same stimuli, we recorded the same outcome: a
reliable effect of session [Panel B, F(1, 16) = 6.86, p < .05]
with neither cycle [Panel B, F(1, 16) = .98, p > .05] nor the
interaction [F(7, 16) = 44.46, p > .05] reliable statistically. Fi-
nally, for analytic representation of environmental objects both
session [Panel C, F(1, 16) = 272.06, p < .001] and cycle [Panel
C, F(7, 16) = 58.14, p < .001] were reliable, indicating the pres-
ence of learning both within and across sessions. Moreover, the
session x cycle interaction was also reliable [F(7, 16) = 38.26, p
< .001]. This interaction supports the observation that learning
was less pronounced in the second session.
In an overall ANOVA, the number of errors differed across
the three methods [F(2, 48) = 9.14, p < .001]. Error rate was
largest in the condition in which analytic sounds represented
geometric shapes (mean of 12.34), was intermediate in the con-
dition in which metaphoric sounds were associated with the
same shapes (mean of 12.1), and was smallest when the par-
ticipant learned to represent environmental objects by analytic
sounds (mean of 6.56). In this inclusive analysis we also found
an effect of a cycle [F(7, 48) = 4.17, p < .001] as well as an
effect of session [F(1, 48) = 65.29, p < .001]. Clearly, each of
the three main factors, method of representation, cycle of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 413
The mean number of errors per cycle in three conditions observed in Experiment 1. (a) Metaphoric repre-
sentation of geometric shapes; (b) Analytic representation of geometric shapes; (c) Analytic representation
of environmental o bj e ct s .
learning, and session affected the acquisition. Of the interac-
tions, that between session and cycle was reliable [F(7, 48) =
2.76, p < .05], documenting the diminishing marginal gains in
learning during the second session. The absence of a method x
cycle interaction [F(14, 48) = 1.16, p > .05] as well as the
non-reliable three-way interaction (F < 1) confirms that acqui-
sition had the same general shape with all methods.
The results provide impressive evidence of learning by both
methods of auditory conversion. The learning that took place
within the span of a day (separating the two sessions) was sub-
stantial. Clearly, humans are capable to learn cross-modal rep-
resentation by both methods. However, what is still missing in
the data is an indication for differential learning.
The important issue addressed in Experiment 2 was the dif-
ferent potential of the metaphoric and the analytic methods
assayed through generalizeability and ecological validity. For
the former, we tested transfer of learning with each method. A
representation is valuable to the extent that is not limited to the
set of stimuli that served in acquisition. For the latter, we tested
the ability to re-create via outline drawing a visual stimulus
based solely upon the respective sound input.
A fresh group of 24 young women and men, half females,
participated in the experiment on a voluntary basis. Their age
ranged between 16 and 18 years. The inclusion criteria were
those used in Experiment 1. The participants served in three
experimental sessions lasting approximately one hour each.
Apparatus and Stimuli
The apparatus and conditions of stimulus presentation were
those used in Experiment 1. For the visual stimuli, there were
two sets of geometric shapes (set #1: three different-shaped
triangles, two different-shaped of rectangles, a diamond, a cir-
cle, and a square ; set #2: an arrowhead, an ellipse, a hexagon, a
house, a star, a sandglass, a rectangle and a triangle -- different
from those used in set #1). There was yet another set of “natu-
ral” environmental objects (bell, dog, car, airplane, boat, dol-
phin, hammer, and duck.). For the auditory representations, we
used the following sounds in the metaphoric method: piano,
castanets, chimes, cymbals, harmonica, guitar, trumpet, and
drums (set #1) and piano, drums, chimes, cymbal, bell, gong,
guitar and trumpet (set #2). The metaphoric sounds for the en-
vironmental objects were obviously those of bell ringing, bark-
ing, engine ignition, plane takeoff, boat’s horn, sound of a dol-
phin, hammer’s tapping, and the quack of a duck. For the ana-
lytic method, the specific auditory function or “musical graph”
represented each visual stimulus, whether geometric shape or
everyday object .
There were two conditions of learning, metaphoric and ana-
lytic. Different participants studied in each condition. Within
each condition, the participant learned to associate a sound to
each visual stimulus in two sessions separated by 24 hours.
After another 24 hours the participants returned to the labora-
tory for another learning session using the same method but on
a different set of stimuli. We elected to separate sessions by 24
hours because this interval provides the best condition for over-
night consolidation of learning.
The participants learning with the metaphoric method had
one set of geometric shapes during the first two sessions, and
another set of geometric shapes in the third session (testing
everyday objects is impractical with this method). The partici-
pants learning with the analytic method had one set of stimuli
(shapes or objects) during the first two sessions, and a new set
(shapes or objects) in the third session. The stimulus sets were
counterbalanced within each condition. Thus, half of the par-
ticipants in the metaphoric group studied a given set in sessions
1 and 2 and another in the third session, whereas the other half
studied with the reversed arrangement. In the analytic group,
half of the participants studied geometric shapes in the first two
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
sessions and environmental objects in the third, whereas the
other half studied objects in the first two sessions and shapes in
The method of learning—presentation of the stimuli, cycles
of trials, and acquisition criteria—was the same as in Experi-
ment 1. We also offered a financial reward as we did in Ex-
periment 1. The size of the reward was conditional on the par-
ticipant’s performance. Improvement in performance was
measured by the reduction in the number of errors between the
first two cycles in the first session and the last two cycles in the
third session. An improvement of 25% yield the reward of 30
NIS, and an improvement ranging between 26% - 50% yielded
the reward of 45 NIS. The reward was increased to 75 NIS with
an even larger improvement. The payment was provided at the
end of the third session.
Apart from the usual indices of learning and transfer of
learning we asked the participants to make outline drawings of
stimuli never seen before—based solely on their sound graphs.
For the participants who studied with the metaphoric method, a
short explanation of the analytic conversion was given accom-
panied by a couple of demonstrations.
Each participant made two such drawings based on different
musical graphs. The quality of the drawings—their fidelity to
the visual reference—was evaluated by two independent judges
on a 1 (completely similar)—7 (very different) scale of accu-
racy of reproduction. The overall correlation between the
evaluations of the two judges was .85. This assessment was
performed at the end of the second session for all participants.
Each participant was assigned to either the metaphoric or the
analytic learning condition in a random fashion and performed
in three learning sessions. The participant performed in the first
two learning sessions separated by 24 hours. At the end of the
second session, the participant was asked to draw two different
objects after listening to their musical graphs. A day later he or
she returned to the laboratory to perform in a third learning
session with a new set of stimuli. Each session lasted one hour
on average. At the end of the third session the participant got
paid commensurate with her or his performance.
Results and Discussion
In panel (A) of Figure 2 we present the learning (first two
sessions) and transfer of learning (third session) using the
metaphoric method. A glimpse at panel (A) of Figure 2 reveals
the typical learning curve (gradual improvement mainly in the
first couple of cycles) in the first session. Equally salient to
inspection is the dramatic improvement in performance in the
second session. So, a considerable amount of learning occurred,
both within and across sessions, when the participants assigned
a constant sound to a constant visual shape. However, transfer
of learning was poor with the metaphoric method. When the
original visual shapes were replaced by a new set in the third
session, errors rebounded almost to the level observed at the
beginning of the experiment.
In the statistical analysis, the main factor of cycle [F(7, 264)
= 24.07, p < .001] confirmed the learning that took place in
each session. The main factor of session [F(7, 264) = 92.58, p
< .001] confirmed the large improvement between the first ant
the second sessions. A post hoc analysis with Bonferroni’s
correction (p < .05) revealed that significant improvement (re-
duction in rates of errors) occurred between the first and the
In panel (B) of Figure 2 we present the parallel data for the
participants who learned by the analytic method. The functions
The mean number of err ors per cycle observed in Experiment 2. (a) T h e metaphoric repr esentation method;
(b) The analytic representa ti o n method.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
in panel (B) of Fig k place
g, we asked
pants from the metaphoric condition were poor (often hardly
y relationship of the
al motivation in this project was to help the visual
The participants perforons on separate days.
ure 2 document the learning that too
in the first session as well as the large improvement in the sec-
ond session. However, what is most revealing about the data
with the analytic method is the impressive transfer of learning
observed. As is shown in Figure 2, performance with a set of
completely novel and unfamiliar stimuli was on a par with that
attained with the original stimuli in the second session.
Statistical analysis showed a reliable main factor of s
(2, 264) = 12.29, p < .001], documenting the differential
learning in the three sessions with the analytic method. A post
hoc analysis with Bonferroni’s correction (p < .05) revealed
significant improvement between the first and the second ses-
sions and the first and the third sessions. An omnibus ANOVA
across both conditions revealed that there were more errors in
the analytic then the metaphoric method [F(1, 528) = 4.13, p
< .001]. This difference reflects the enhanced difficulty of ac-
quiring the principles of the analytic representation. Once ac-
quired however, the individual reaps extraordinary gains in
transfer of training to virtually any other stimulus. Indeed, the
three-way interaction of method x cycle x session [F(14, 528) =
14.78, p < .01] confirmed the qualitative differences between
the two methods of auditory representation. Learning is more
difficult with the analytic method, but this disadvantage is off-
set by its virtually unlim ited applicability.
After completing the second session of learnin
ch participant to attempt to draw a simple picture based on
the musical graph of the referent visual stimulus. The partici-
pants from the metaphoric condition were exposed to a short
presentation of the method and principles of the analytic repre-
sentation. The drawings shown in Figure 3 are typical. Those
produced by participants from the analytic condition exhibited
remarkable fidelity to the referent visual shape (never seen by
the participant). In contrast, the drawings provided by partici-
recognizable) surrogates of the referent visual stimuli.
The mean ratings of similarity to the referent by the
dges were 3.2 for the drawings of the participants from the
analytic condition and 5.9 for those of the participants from the
metaphoric condition [t(47) = 5.5, p = .01]. These results rein-
force the ecological validity of the analytic method. The meta-
phoric method, by contrast, is largely limited to the representa-
tion of the original associations learned.
The results revealed the complementar
o methods of auditory representation. The metaphoric
method was easy to learn, but it was obviously limited to the
particular stimuli presented (in this respect they mimic envi-
ronmental object-sound associations from everyday life). The
analytic method entails a set of conversion rules, so that acqui-
sition is tantamount to mastering a new language. Once ac-
quired however, this new language is capable of representing
new stimuli on a wide range. In the direct test of drawing a
sound fed to the ears, the analytic method proved remarkably
paired by producing a solid, scientifically based method of
auditory representation. Therefore, in the next experiment we
tested the analytic method developed in this study with a small
sample of visually impaired individuals.
med in three sessi
the first two sessions, they learned to represent geometric
shapes by their auditory functions. In the third session, they
attempted to harness their prior experience in order to acquire
auditory representation for a new set of shapes as well as for a
A drawing made by a pa r ti cipant The referent geometric shape A drawing made by a pacipant
from the analytic condition generating the auditory graph
from the metaphoric condition
A drawing made by a pa r ti cipat The referent object generating e A drawing made by a participant
Figure 3. geometric shape (a) and a referent everyday object (b) generating the auditory graphs (in the
from the analytic condition th
from the metaphoric condition
middle) and the drawings made on the basis of the sounds by participants from the metaphoric and the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 415
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
et of previously ntal objects. Finally, we
ts visually impaired people, two males and two
Apparatus and Stimuli y stimuli were those used in the ana-
Design articipants attended three experimental sessions sepa-
examined efficacy by asking the
Procedure ing sessions took place in the participant’s home.
objects following their musical graphs. A day later he or she
in Figure 4. Several features of the
rthy. After the typical learning that
served over days [F(3, 48) = 3.10, p < .05]. The lack
a drawing based on its auditory function. The visual
th its most needy
In a series ferent meth-
ods for auditohe first, the
also tested the efficacy of the method by asking the visually
impaired to make drawings of visual stimuli based solely on
their auditory graphs fed into the ears.
A group of four
males, participated in the experiment on a voluntary basis.
Their condition allowed the identification of objects displayed
on the monitor, as verified by a screening test. Selected were
participants who correctly identified at least 90% of the 20
drawings presented. None of the participants suffered from any
other (known) motor or neurological damage. Their age ranged
between 25 and 35 years. They served in three experimental
sessions lasting approximately 45 min each.
The visual and auditor
tic condition of Experiment 1, with a single notable exception.
We presented only the first four of the visual stimuli and the
corresponding sounds (in a 2 × 2 matrix and parallel response
pad). In order to test learning as well as transfer of learning, the
participants attended three sessions. In the first two sessions a
set of geometric shapes was presented such that each shape was
represented by its auditory function. In the third session, a new
set of geometric shapes was presented as well as a set of envi-
ronmental objects. All the other details of the presentation and
response recording were the same as in Experiment 2.
ted by 24 hours. Testing took place at the participant’s home.
At the beginning of the first session, the participant received
explanations on the principles of the analytic method followed
by a few illustrations. On a trial, the four shapes were presented
on the screen. The reduction in the number of stimuli was the
result of a pilot study performed on another group of three
visually impaired individuals. A larger number than four stim-
uli presented a heavy cognitive load for these individuals. Each
session came to end after completing four cycles of trials last-
ing approximately 45 min.
As in Experiment 2, we also
rticipants to produce an outline drawing of the stimulus
whose auditory representation was fed into the ears. These
stimuli were never exposed before. Each participant made two
such drawings based on different musical graphs. The quality of
the drawings—their fidelity to the visual referent—was evalu-
ated by two independent judges, on the same scales used in
Experiment 2. The correlation between the evaluations pro-
vided by the two judges was .76.
evertheless, we made efforts to standardize the environmental
conditions. Thus, the participants were tested in a dimly lit
room, seated in front of a desk on which we put the mobile
computer, the response pad, and headphones. The first two
learning sessions were separated by 24 hours. At the end of the
second session, the participant was asked to draw two different
performed in a third learning session with new sets of stimuli.
Each session lasted 45 min, on average. At the end of the third
session the participant received explanations about the purpose
of the study.
Results and D
The results are presented
data in Figure 4 are notewo
ok place in the first session in day one, there was a marked
improvement in the second session in day two. Notably too, the
data from the third session in day three, exhibited appreciable
amount of transfer of learning for both geometric shapes and
environmental objects. The participants associated auditory
representation for the new set of shapes and for the set of eve-
ryday objects as easily as they did for the familiar shapes pre-
sented in the second session. These results demonstrate the
power of the analytic method developed in this study to repre-
sent visual information by sounds with visually impaired indi-
The reliable factor of session confirmed the improvement in
a session x cycle interaction (F < 1) shows that the form of
learning was similar in all days. The lack of a difference be-
tween shapes and objects in the third session (F < 1) as well as
their superior learning curves vis-à-vis the first session [F(2, 48)
= 3.01, p < .05] shows the presence of an equal (and large)
amount of a transfer of training. Once acquired the analytic
method of representation extends naturally to all types of visual
In this experiment, too, we asked the visually impaired to
imuli generating the sounds had not been previously pre-
sented to the participants. One visual stimulus was a shape and
another was a common everyday object (unbeknownst to the
participants). Typical productions made by the visually im-
paired participants are shown in the two panels of Figure 5
(one for the geometric shape and one for a meaningful object).
The mean rating of fidelity to the unseen original was 3.1. This
value betrays great similarity between the drawings and their
visual referents. Clearly, the visually impaired benefited greatly
from acquiring the principles of the analytic representation and
applied them with considerable success.
The results of Experiment 3 provide clear evidence that the
analytic method works remarkably well wi
ers, the visually impaired. This method requires a certain
amount of learning, but the investment is justified by the con-
siderable gains in the fidelity and large applicability of the
auditory repres entation.
of experiments we developed two dif
ry representation of visual stimuli. T
etaphoric” method, makes use of familiar sounds to repre-
sent visual objects. The second method, the “analytic” method,
is a rule-based representation by which values of continuous
auditory variables define points in space and create a dedicated
and precise “auditory graph” to represent the referent visual
stimulus. We observed learning with both methods. The ana-
lytic method is singularly generalizeable and learning and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
O. SHENKAR, D. ALGOM
Figure 4. umber of errors per cycle under the analytic condition by visually impaired participants in Ex-
The mean n
periment 3. The same set of stimuli was presented in the first two sessions. In the third session, novel sets
were presented: a new set of geometric shapes in one block, and everyday obj e c ts in a no t h er block.
A typical d rawing made by a visual The referent geometric shape
generating the auditory graph
A typical d rawing made by a visual The referent object generating
Figure 5. eometric shape (a) and an everyday object (b) drawn by a
displayed by normally
ative pairs that were
fetime or in the experiment). The analytic
Bly, S. A. (1982). Communicating with sound. Proceedings of the
International Conference on Computer Human Interface, 371-375.
Bonebright, T. L., NeesT., & McCain, G. R.
A typical g
visual impaired participant on the basis of sounds generated according
to the respective auditory graphs.
ansfer of learning were eminentlytr
sighted participants as well as by the visually impaired.
The results of earlier research made on environmental sounds
were variable, useful in some cases, but not serviceable in other
cases. Our study shows the learning potential of the metaphoric
method, a generalization of environmental sounds. However,
the main new feature of this study is the systematic comparison
of the metaphoric and the analytic methods, a comparison
missing from much earlier research.
A major new tool used in this study was the active reproduc-
tion of the stimuli by the participants. Much existing research is
based on verbal estimations, descriptions, or simple motor reac-
tions. In the current study, by contrast, the participants were
actively drawing the visual stimuli based on their auditory con-
versions. Therefore, this study enjoys a particularly strong eco-
Although representation by the metaphoric method is easily
learned (over li
learned, it is limited to the specific associ
ethod, by contrast, applies to all visual stimuli in two dimen-
sions, natural or artificial. Because it is a high fidelity mathe-
matical device, it represents objects in fine detail.
One of the main potential implementations of the metaphoric
method would be making easy access to visual computer dis-
play objects, especially to small sized displays (on palms, mo-
bile computers, and cellular phone). In such cases, one can
represent toolbar and menu tasks by a natural sound (e.g., door
opening sound for the “open file” command). The analytic
method is recommended for cases where an obvious and imme-
diate associative match between object and sound is limited or
missing. In this case, there is a need for a rule-based method
that can be generalized and implemented in many instances.
The flexibility of the analytic method is well suited to acoustic
displays of numerical data. Another implementation of acoustic
parameters would be to facilitate a person’s orientation in space.
Here, acoustic parameters can be used to map the space to a
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