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Computer science professor Gary Bishop finds his calling as a
‘geek for good’ and makes life a bit better for others

There are many ways to measure the lasting value of one’s work. Sometimes it’s as simple as the ability to help another person.

Gary Bishop, a self-described computer geek, once rode on the cutting edge of technology with research that developed hardware and software for human machine interaction, 3-D graphics, motion tracking, virtual environments and image-based rendering.

Bishop

On April 29, Gary Bishop presided over the sixth annual Maze Day where 75 visually impaired students from grades K–12 played computer games created by students in his software engineering classes.

But nearly a decade ago, as he was approaching 50, Bishop took inventory of the worth of his work, and to his surprise found emptiness.

“I said to myself, ‘Wow, all the work I’ve done has been used to entertain people or to train people to hurt other people.’”

He decided at that moment that he wanted to produce something that could make someone’s life better, without having a clue what that might be.

Poor but rich
No one would blame Bishop for using money as a measure of success.

When he was 6, his father died from a heart attack, leaving his mother to raise three children on “a little bit of veterans benefits and a little bit of Social Security,” Bishop said.

Until Bishop grew up and moved away, he didn’t realize the family was poor because they always had clothes and food. His mother made sure they had books, too, including a complete set of The World Book Encyclopedia that Bishop read in earnest after he broke his leg playing touch football in the third grade.

Being in a cast for three months, Bishop is convinced, set his life on a new course. He had nothing else to do but exercise his mind.

“Saturday morning, watching cartoons on TV, I used to sit with a World Book,” he said. “Anything that caught my attention, I would read that entry. No telling how many times I went through those encyclopedias, just flipping.”

Long after his leg healed, the reading bug lingered. On Saturdays, he would spend hours at the city library in nearby Savannah, usually reading about ham radio, electric motors and the pioneers of electronics.

“I always knew I wanted to be an electrical engineer,” Bishop said.

In 1976, after earning a degree in electrical engineering technology from the Southern Technical Institute in Marietta, Ga., he went to work in the electrical power industry as a COBOL programmer.

He might have stayed there the rest of his life, but his mind was too jumpy to settle for a routine of sameness, so in 1979 he enrolled as a graduate student in Carolina’s computer science department.

Finding the human connection
Soon after Bishop arrived, Fred Brooks, who was then department chair, offered him a job as executive officer. It was 24 hours a week of heady responsibility (now the associate chair for finance), which Bishop took on during his first two years as a graduate student – the same time in which he became a husband and father.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1984, Bishop went to work developing computer graphics and virtual reality programs for AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and later, Sun Microsystems.

He started out in both places feeling like a kid in a candy store and left when the candy got stale. “You want to keep learning and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything,” Bishop said.

So in 1991, he came back to Carolina as a faculty member in computer science, making less than half what he earned his last year at Sun Microsystems.

But he has never thought of going anywhere else.

Why leave a place where every day presents an opportunity to try out new ideas with new people – as often by accident as by design, he said.

That is what happened to Bishop in 2001 during a period in his life when he was still searching for ways to add meaning to his work.

He ran into a blind man outside South Building in need of directions. Little did Bishop know he would receive direction in return.

The man was Jason Morris, a graduate student in classics. After Bishop explained what he did, Morris told him about the Ancient World Mapping Center in Davis Library and how people there wanted to figure out a way to produce maps for the visually impaired.

“Would you be interested?” Morris asked.

Bishop had never even heard of the mapping center, but he knew instantly that he had stumbled upon the opportunity he had been searching for to serve as a “geek for good.”

Without hesitation, Bishop answered, “I’m very interested in that.”

Getting into the maze
He put together a group of five students who designed a system called BATS (Blind Audio Tactile Mapping System), and they developed a map of Britain under Roman rule that Morris became the first to use.

Through Morris, Bishop met Diane Brauner, a certified orientation and mobility specialist, who told him about blind children in elementary school being left behind when the class went to computer labs because there was no software that made the computers accessible to them.

Brauner said Bishop got a horrified expression on his face and said, “That’s just wrong.”

His solution was Hark the Sound, a collection of sound-based computer games that allowed visually impaired children to identify songs and animal sounds.

Brauner found herself a regular guest in Bishop’s course on enabling technology in which his students developed software to create a virtual maze that blind children could navigate by feeling pressure on the control to simulate contact with a wall.

In one class, a student who was not a programmer got permission to build a real maze as her project – one that replicated the virtual maze and tested whether students who first completed the virtual version could get through the real maze faster than students who had not first tried the virtual maze.

Since the maze she built was too big to haul to a school, the students had to come to it. The result was Maze Day, a carnival of sensation and sound where the boundary between learning and fun disappeared.

Now in its sixth year, Maze Day draws about 75 children in grades K–12, more than double the 30 who came the first year. Activities range from Penguin Slide in which students use a Wii Balance board to keep a penguin on the iceberg and catch fish, to Nanomanipulator where students can feel the inside of a cell, to Jungle Hopscotch in which a roll of the dice conjures sounds of the jungle.

Bishop attributes the success of Maze Day to his colleagues in computer science. “The staff are the real heroes,” he said. “They put in countless volunteer hours way outside their job descriptions to make it all happen.”

Bishop said many of his Carolina students arrive filled with ideas of making money off the computer games they can create and market, but he provides a dose of reality.

“I tell them, ‘When you are going up against the game companies, they have millions of dollars. It’s too hard,’” he said. “‘But when you are writing games in a domain where there is no competition, I promise you can write a game that is more fun than nothing. And what these kids have is a lot of nothing.’”

Through the years, many of the games have been spread across the world. Bishop keeps in his office a letter in Braille sent to him by a blind teacher in India who used one of the games in her class. Her students loved it so much, she asked if he could send her another CD.

Since the games are given away, Bishop has had to raise money to sustain creating them. Some has come from companies such as Microsoft, some from colleagues and some from local businesses and individuals who simply support the work and want to help it continue. The APPLES service-learning program helps sponsor Bishop’s classes as well.

Bishop said, “I spend the money like there is going to be more, and there always is.”

A calling
One invention, produced in collaboration with the Center for Library and Disability Studies in 2008, is among his proudest: a Web site for teens with developmental disabilities who are not able to use a keyboard or turn a book page.

Projected on the wall of Bishop’s office in Sitterson Hall is a map of the world that has a counter showing the number of books read on the site each day, matched with a growing number of lighted dots on the map. Each dot signifies where a child read the book.

In conjunction, a beeping sound rises or falls in pitch as the pace of books being read goes up or down.

On March 3, the map revealed that the 1-millionth book was read.

Bishop said he has always been a happy person, but he has never been more satisfied than he is now as he is about to turn 56. His work is his calling, and the void he once felt is gone.

On his home page, he describes that calling as, “We’re geeks making life a bit better.”

“Somewhat to my colleagues’ consternation, I have quit doing computer graphics and quit going to graphics conferences,” Bishop said. “This is what I devote my time to and it is the most important, rewarding work I have done in my life.”

Brauner said she does not understand anything about computers, but she has figured out what makes Bishop tick.

“Sometimes, when I go to Gary with an idea for a game, he will scratch his head and say, ‘That is not physically possible,’” Brauner said. “But I cannot count the times he has been a miracle worker.

“He has such a strong faith and that is where his joy and his generous heart come from. He doesn’t push that on anybody, but it is always there. It is who he is.”

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INSIDE THE PRINT EDITION:
May 12, 2010

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* *Grisham advises graduates to find their own voices

* *Computer science professor Gary Bishop finds his calling as a ‘geek for good’ and makes life a bit better for others

* *IAH Chairs Leadership Program helps flatten learning curve

* *‘Aphasia’ recounts one man’s struggle  to relearn how to speak and understand

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