Enter the maze

Listen to your spreadsheet

Financial data

Do you listen to your computer as often as you should? Most of the beeps made by PCs quickly become irritating. Using sound to make computers easier to use doesn't have to be that way though.

Using sound to present data is called 'Sonification', and it has some has some notable uses we wouldn't want to be without. From heart monitors in hospitals to the sounds produced for Radar operators, sonification of data has saved many lives.

In the right situation, sonification can make patterns in data much more obvious. This is the idea that Tony Stockman from Queen Mary's Interaction, Media and Communication group is investigating. Tony's team is developing usable sonification systems for visualising large amounts of data and his student Greg Hind built a working prototype system to sonify spreadsheets as his MSc project work.

Screen readers already exist to help blind users. They just read out whatever words are under the cursor. This means a blind person can examine a spreadsheet a cell at a time. It's helpful, but it's hard to get the big picture that way. The Queen Mary system gives you a second 'sonification cursor'. It can be used to travel quickly over rows or columns, making different sounds depending on the data it passes over, independently of the normal cursor. When a cell value is really low or high, for example, the difference in sound stands out. The two cursors can be easily snapped back together, which means you can quickly get the actual value of an interesting cell you’ve found.

Once you have this basic system there are lots of add-ons you can start to think about. For example, why not add an ability to bookmark particular cells, attach sounds to particular text strings (not just numbers), or automatically sonify areas of the spreadsheet rather than it being done by hand. All those features have already been added to the system and there is lots more that can be done.

So next time you are staring at rows of dull figures, why not liven things up and listen to your data instead.