Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

Anyone who is a gamer knows how much video games have changed over the years, and not just the games themselves, but the perception of them. This applies to the blind as well, as our perception of game accessibility, what is playable and what isn’t, has also changed. I’d just like to take a moment to reflect and discuss those differences with you now. Let’s see what you think.

Accessibility in video games has become, as the years have gone on, both more complicated, and yet more simple as well. More complicated because the complexity of games is much, much greater than it used to be, and the implementation of accessibility features would involve the writing and/or rewriting of a whole lot more code. At the same time, though, it has become more simplistic because the possibilities of what can be implemented have expanded. Game companies have drastically increased in size, and games are now developed by teams that can go from small groups to well over a hundred people.

And that’s not all. The fact is, accessibility in retro games simply wasn’t a thing that was considered. Not just for blindness, but for anyone. If there was a game you couldn’t play, that was the end of it. There were no patches or fixes you could hope for. The release of a game was the final product, and that was that.

It’s interesting to think back on how all of these things have changed. In the case of blindness, for instance, we knew to accept that there were things we could play, and things we couldn’t, and nothing could be done about the ones we couldn’t. We had dreams, we had frustration, but we also had acceptance. For this reason, some of what I’ve mentioned above didn’t actually matter to us, because that was the way things were.

After all, it’s difficult to argue the fact that the accessibility threshold was a bit lower, at least for the blind. For instance, most very old games didn’t even have a menu. Old consoles didn’t even have an interface of their own. You pop in the cartridge, you turn on your console, you begin playing. If there was a menu option, it was almost always 1 player or 2. That alone eliminates some of the accessibility problems we face today. No menu memorization, no concern over whether a console has text to speech or how good it is, no store to purchase DLC from… It was a simpler time.

Games themselves were more limited in scope back then as well. This is interesting because it meant that a game was usually completely playable by a blind person, or completely not playable. A fighting game, for instance, didn’t even have an in-game move list back then, and although fighters today almost always fall under the playable category, we still don’t have access to those features in most of them. Back in the old days, though, we had just as much access to a fighter as anyone, as a sighted person couldn’t look things up easily either.

There is also an interesting difference in what we had to learn in order to play a game versus what we have to learn now. In older games, there weren’t as many sound effects used. This was good in that it took us a shorter time to learn what each sound meant, but it was also bad. Less sound effects meant fewer indicators for events. This was made worse in games that used the same sound for multiple things. Older fighters, for instance, used the same voice audio for all male characters, and only used a different one if there was a female character. We had to use other things, such as the sounds of certain moves, to determine which fighter was actually present.

Now, there is so much sound in games. This, too, is a good and bad thing. More sound means more work learning each individual one and what it means. This usually takes much longer now as there are so many sounds in the game that it is possible not to notice a particularly helpful one right away. For example, it took me some time to realize that, in Kingdom Hearts, Saura’s footsteps change depending on what keyblade he’s wielding, but once I figured that out, it was immensely helpful.

The fact that the footstep sound difference I just mentioned even exists, though, is a great example of why more sound is a good thing. As long as we can figure things out, there is loads of information available via our ears, some of which the sighted community doesn’t even notice. This is why today’s audio designers love us. We tend to catch the little details that exist, even though there are so many of them.

Today’s sound goes beyond sounds themselves, though. These days, with technologies like surround sound and even 3D audio, we get even more information. We can tell where something or someone is based on the positioning of its sound in our headphones or speakers. Most older games played all their sound from a single speaker until around the mid 90’s.

I’m not really trying to make a point with this blog. This struck me as an interesting topic because of how different things were than they are now, and I thought it would be fun for you guys to think about it too as we move forward into a new age of accessibility. Yes, accessibility takes a lot more work these days than it might have if we had accessibility features back then, but it’s still happening. Developers are starting to communicate with the disabled community, and they’re starting to listen. It’s a wonderful, magical time, but the past, the way things were in the NES and SNES days, had a sort of magic all its own as well. I hope all of this made sense, and I hope as well that it got you thinking. As always, feel free to comment, and check out the support heading for ways in which you can, well, support this content. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

The Platinum Wireless Headset and 3D Audio: My Uncharted Adventure

When I first heard that the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset would support not only 7.1 surround sound, but true 3D audio, I knew I had to check it out. The potential for 3D audio in video games, especially for the blind, is staggering, and I wanted to see if playstation could make it a reality. What follows is a general review of the headset itself, along with my experience with its 3D audio feature in Uncharted 4.

I liked the feel of the headset as soon as I pulled it from its padded box. It’s not too heavy, with large ear cups to ensure the best sound possible, and even before you actually wear it, the feel of the padding lets you know it’ll be comfortable. This impression was proven accurate when I put it on for the first time. It is comfortable, and light enough while on your head that you don’t feel weighed down by a bulky piece of equipment. I was already looking forward to this.

The controls turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate, and to use. Though each control is the same shape, they are all well-separated from one another, and each is tactily different. The mute button for the microphone, for instance, is a little more inset than the rest of the buttons. The The power switch, which doubles as your switch for presets, has a couple of obvious bumps on it. And all of the controls, except for the switch that activates or deactivates virtual surround, are on the left side, making it even less confusing.

In case you manage to acquire one of these headsets, and you’re one of my primary audience, let’s go through what you’ll find starting from the bottom of the left earpiece. Nearest the bottom is a 3.5 MM jack, used with the supplied patch cable to plug the headset into any standard headphone jack. Next to that, the USB Mini port, used to charge it. Then, in order, heading to the top, we have the master volume buttons, the mute button, the power/presets switch, and the game audio/chat audio balance buttons. Down tilts the balance toward chat audio, up tilts it toward game audio. And as mentioned, the only thing you’ve got on the right is the switch for virtual surround. Up is on, down is off, though you’ll hardly need me to tell you that once you hear it.

And speaking of the sound, it’s fantastic. Sure, the first game I played was Mortal Kombat X, as anyone who follows my Youtube channel can probably guess, and that game doesn’t represent the height of surround sound, but still, it sounded great. Every hit sounded more impactful because of the bass that headset pumps out, and the surround sound did lend itself a little to the 2D fighting environment. When I tossed my opponent across the screen, I felt like I had done so. That game has great audio, and the Platinum headset made it sound even better.

And still on the topic of sound, I should mention for the visually impaired that the headset does possess some identifiable beeps and boops when you interact with it. Mute the mic and you get one beep, unmute it and you get a lower tone beep. More beeps when you press the volume and balance buttons, and some helpful power and connected tones when you flip the switch. The whole thing is very easy to use, just gotta make sure that dongle’s plugged in, and you’re off.

Now, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time for my take on the 3D audio supported by the Platinum Headset. As of this writing, the only game that supports the headset’s 3D audio feature is Uncharted 4. Well, I haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to someone play the other Uncharted games, (and unfortunately they aren’t accessible to the blind), but I still had to try it. So, with the help of my fantastic fiance to enable some of Uncharted 4’s famous accessibility features, (not actually intended for the blind but helpful nonetheless), I fired it up.

Let’s get the big statement out of the way first. The 3D audio works. You really can hear things above and below you, and all around you. Even in 7.1 surround, sounds tend to emanate from specific places. The 3D audio seems to really put sound all around you, which is awesome.

However, I have to say that, as awesome as it is, and as helpful as I believe it will be in games, it isn’t perfect. Initially, we had the aim setting set to toggle, which is an accessibility option that allows you to press a button once to activate aiming mode, and press it again to turn it off. While set to this mode, I attempted to locate my enemies after having presumably toggled the aiming mode on, and could not do so, even when audio told me they had to be right in front of me. I am not sure why this is, and it could even be that, as a blind gamer, there are fundamentals of shooting in a game that I don’t understand. Regardless, aiming worked a thousand times better when we switched it back to Hold, where you hold a button to aim instead. The aim assist snapped to each target for me, and I was able to take them out.

Stepping back in time a bit, though, I want to talk a bit more about the 3D audio, and how it did help me. In the beginning, you have to swim a little to locate your companion, who is working on your damaged boat. Because he calls to you at first, I was able to orient on his position. Then, by listening for the sounds of his work, I was able to find him. This in itself says a lot for the potential for 3D audio. In a truly immersive environment, and it seems with perhaps just a little in-game help, who knows what we’ll be able to do? I’ll tell ya this, even being blind, the sound of our enemies’ boat approaching from the far left, and stopping right in front of us as our companion frantically works behind us was appropriately ominous.

Flashing forward again, once we got aiming working, I was able to take out our enemies. Then, through some rather typical blind person trial and error gameplay, I was able to start the boat we leave on, (I believe it’s actually the opposition’s boat though I could be wrong), and drive away. The 3D audio didn’t really take part here, I just tried to turn regularly in hopes of avoiding objects. Left a little, then right a little, and so on. Then, something happens, (no spoilers here), that moves you to the next part of the game. Unfortunately, this is where my journey ended.

The next part of the game involves a significant amount of platforming, which even 3D audio could not help with in the slightest. After all, regular platforms, rooftops in this case I believe, don’t make noise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly stubborn. I tried. I tried a lot. But it was not to be.

Not wanting to be done testing the awesome 3D audio feature, I got a little help through that bit, and moved onto the next, which involved stealth. This didn’t work out much better, as it took a bunch of questions for me to figure out what I was supposed to do here. I finally figured out how to take cover against a wall that is next to you the whole time, (more on that later), and got through the first section of that. After that, though, I could progress no further without being seen. The audio just was not enough. That was the true end of my 3D audio expedition, though for the sake of playing the game blind, it really ended when I reached the platforming bit.

So let’s go back to that wall, and talk about the things the Platinum Headset’s 3D audio feature doesn’t do. As I said, it’s not perfect. Distance seems to be an issue, as although it can project certain sounds to what seems to be very far away, it seems as though there’s some kind of threshold there. If something is very far in front of you, the 3D audio may project it to sound like it’s very, very far in front of you. However, once it reaches a certain point nearer you, the sound puts it seemingly right in front. I suspect this was part of my aiming problem, though again that’s difficult to verify. My evidence for this is that the call from my companion in the beginning just seemed to be in the virtual surround field, but the agonized call of someone who saw me accidentally plunge to my death off a rooftop seemed remarkably far away.

The other thing it doesn’t do, though it makes sense as technology just isn’t quite there yet, is echo properly. There is a term that, to my knowledge, was coined by Stevie Wonder. That term is sound shadows. It is a name for the way you can hear how sound reflects off of objects around you if you listen, and it’s something a blind person uses all the time. Ever see a blind person round a corner without having touched the wall with hand or cane, and wondered how they did it? That’s how. We have trained ourselves to hear sound reflect off of the wall next to us. When that disappears, we know that wall has ended. We can use this same technique to gauge a person’s height, as obviously surrounding sound reflects off of people too. But in 3D game audio, this does not exist.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find this to be surprising. A system like the one that would be required to create this effect would be massive. Every single object, person, and wall would have to have their own pocket of sound-blocking that follows them around. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, as true, binaural 3D recorded audio actually DOES simulate sound shadows. Listen to the 3D audio dramatization of Stephen King’s The Mist, and if you know what to listen for, you’ll know what I mean.

Because of these things, though, I was unable to tell both how far away I was from the wall I had to take cover against, let alone that there was a wall there to begin with. Had I been able to hear the sound shadows of objects around me, or the way my own jumps echoed off of those objects, I may have been able to intuit where my next platform was. I could still be wrong, and that might not always be enough as you could be jumping a great distance sometimes, but I think all this needs to be said. And hey, as difficult as I understand this would be, it’s never a bad idea to give audio designers something to strive for in the future.

In short, “it’ll sound like you’re really there” is very difficult to sell to a blind person, but again, please please don’t misunderstand, this was still a pretty great experience. I strongly believe that 3D audio could be one of the keys to blind accessibility of video games, and this was still enough to encourage that belief. In other words, it’s a great start, and I’m OK with that… For now.

Now, this is also a review of the Platinum Headset itself, and I think I’ve covered its many positives, so before I go, I must mention the one and only negative I have found. This negative technically isn’t about the physical headset. Rather, it’s about the Headset Companion app for PS4. This app, most unfortunately indeed, is completely inaccessible to the blind. Though the PS4 now possesses text to speech capability, and though that ability extends to 1 of their built-in apps as of this writing, (TV and Video if you’re curious), it does not work in the Headset Companion. Why does this matter? It matters because developers have programmed presets for their games, which can only be downloaded with this app, and those presets change the way those games sound to exactly what the developers wanted them to sound like. To a blind person who cares very, very much about game audio, this is a huge deal, and a huge disappointment that we cannot use it.

But, as most accessibility disappointments do, this only makes me want to strive harder for accessibility, so I will. I will focus on all the positives for now, (the headset is truly great, and hey, I got past the bit with the boat in Uncharted 4), and I will do what I can to make those negatives go away. I’m not going to give this thing a review score, as it’s also a bit of a blog post, but no matter what you came here for, I hope you got something out of it. Thanks very much for reading, game on, and continue to be awesome!

E3 2016: Discussion, concerns, VR

Greetings folks!
I have been away from the blog thing for way too long. I know it, and if you’ve read my other blogs, you probably know it too. However, the 2 major E3 press conferences of 2016 are taking place today, and so I thought I would discuss my thoughts and concerns about this year. Don’t worry though, there are positives here as well.
First, VR. It’s the hip thing right now, especially with Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR device. Given the timing, though, and the fact that the Playstation VR is due out in October, I’m worried that Sony’s press conference will be utterly dominated by VR games, which on the surface doesn’t sound like something the blind community, (which I represent with this blog in case you’re a new reader), would really be able to take advantage of.
Now, though, I offer a potential positive. Sony has made a bold claim regarding the Playstation VR. Supposedly, it will incorporate 3D audio. Now, I say this is a bold statement because many individual games have claimed they used 3D audio in the past, and that hasn’t exactly been true. The original Baldur’s Gate 2 had a setting for 3D audio, and all it actually does is add additional environmental effects and such. Unreal Tournament 3 had a similar setting if i remember correctly, and it was just meant for surround systems. So the implication here is that many, if not most people, don’t actually understand what true 3D audio is. If, however, the Playstation VR does use real, true 3D audio, there may be a reason for the blind to at least try it out. I’m not saying it’ll magically make every game accessible, but it could increase accessibility, definitely. Knowing exactly where your enemies are, which real, true 3D audio would allow, would be amazing. Distance, height, everything.
Still, even if that distant hope turns out to be true, we won’t know it watching Sony’s conference. So I worry, but I also hope that Sony delivers something for both VR and standard players. I know VR is going to be a part of it, I just hope it’s not all of it.
Second, new hardware. No real positive here. I am not really pleased by the rumors of the Playstation Neo, and the Xbox 2, or the Xbox One Slim, or whatever they want to call it. I know it’s been 3 years now, but I just do not feel like purchasing all new hardware. I cannot imagine how either Microsoft or Sony would sell me on a new PS4, or Xbox One, at this current moment when I’m perfectly happy with the systems I got. Slimmer isn’t going to do it for me. Even if they say something like, “It’ll load faster and stuff!” That won’t do it for me either. That’s just not enough reason for me to spend money on essentially a new console.
Now, if they offer some kind of direct trade in program, I would accept that, but that’s extremely doubtful. And yes, I know if I don’t want it, I can just not buy it, but I’m trying to speak for the general public right now, I suppose. Is this what we really need right now? I’m just saying i don’t think it is.
That’s about it for now. There may be more posts later today, depending on what actually happens. I am going to base that on whether or not I have anything to say about it. The press conferences that have already taken place, EA and Bethesda, were interesting, but don’t have much to offer us. More Fallout, more Doom, more Quake, more Madden, a few new games we likely cannot play, and so on. So here’s hoping for the best Microsoft and Sony conferences we can possibly get. Truly, I want them to be great. So impress me, guys.