Gamebreak: Audio Description

Audio Description is, in my opinion, an amazing idea. It’s something that helps blind and low vision folks like myself enjoy entertainment that, in some cases, we couldn’t enjoy otherwise. You may be surprised to learn that there are blind people who hate audio description. Some prefer only to absorb what they can through context. There’s nothing wrong with that, but personally I love it, at least the first time watching something. I’d like to talk more about it in a kind of general sense. There is no specific theme or point to this other than that I want to discuss, and maybe educate folks who don’t yet know some of these things. So with that in mind, here goes!

There is an art to audio description. It’s simple to say that it’s a person in the background of a movie or show describing what’s going on. That’s true, but to do it properly takes skill. You see, audio describers do not wish to step on the toes of any dialog or sound effects that might be present in the show or movie, but at the same time they want to keep their descriptions relevant and informative so the blind person watching understands things they need to know. So, where description is necessary, they will step on sound effects before stepping on dialog. You cannot expect a heavy action scene to be audio described without some tromping on sound effects.

Knowing this, it’s interesting to listen to something audio described, and consider the details that are left out, often only for a short time. For instance, audio describers will often not tell you exactly what a person looks like immediately upon their introduction. New characters are often introduced during tumultuous times, and in those cases, there isn’t enough time to cover that. So an audio describer will instead wait until a moment where the character or characters are performing an action that is easy to describe, but takes time. An example of this would be something like, “Jessie looks out the window contemplatively. She has long, dark, luxurious hair, and smokey gray eyes. She wears awesome clothing, and awesome shoes.”

OK, so the describer wouldn’t actually say awesome clothing and awesome shoes, they’d go into full detail, but you get the idea. They use that contemplative moment, which would likely contain no dialog, to give the viewer more information than they had before. They still have to prepare for the next moments of action, but they learn to use the time they have. I don’t mean to harp on this so much, but personally I find it quite impressive.

Now the thing is, audio description actually used to be fairly uncommon, especially in the US. I remember being a kid in the 90’s, and checking out a couple audio described movies from the library. Yes, the library. You couldn’t find them at video stores, I never knew a place where you could actually purchase them, but the library had a few. A single shelf, to be exact. That’s where I first encountered audio description, and I loved it right away, but it was sure frustrating not to be able to find it on the many, many movies I watched over the years.

I’m pretty sure the UK were one of the first to get a clue when it came to audio description. As the years went by, I kept hearing from friends in the UK that TV shows had it. Then I heard that their movie channels also had it, meaning the movies I loved were being audio described, but over there and not over here. Man oh man, that was painful. I half-joked that I was going to move to the UK for that very reason. Yeah, it was only half a joke. I really wanted to, at the time.

I think it was somewhere around 2009 when the US finally started to figure out that audio description was actually kinda awesome. Some folks in the US had the right idea. Some TV networks like Fox did start supporting audio description before 2009, but I feel like 2009 was the year it really started to click. Suddenly, DVD’s featuring audio description were hitting store shelves. There weren’t many, but they were there, and I remember being shocked every time we found one. It was still in the early days then. A couple years later, iTunes released audio described versions of a few movies, all of which I believe were Disney films. Understand that these were actually separate versions of the movies, specifically made with the audio description track as the primary audio track. Separate purchases entirely.

Fast forward to today, and now I’m overrun with audio described content. iTunes got rid of that old method of providing audio description, and started adding the description audio track to the same versions of movies everyone else was buying. As of a check I did just yesterday, using the audio description project’s web site, iTunes now has a staggering 800+ audio described movies. Furthermore, they’re apparently averaging 18 new additions to their catalog of audio described movies per month. Ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome!

Just in case that’s not enough, Netflix is off and running with audio description these days. Every single Netflix original show and movie gets the audio description treatment, meaning we can fully enjoy all of their content on the day of its release right along with everyone else. To us, that’s a huge, huge deal. Amazon is also working on audio descriptions, but they have a ways to go before getting close to the amazing work Netflix has done. Netflix even goes out of their way to try and get the AD tracks for the licensed content they add every month. It’s quite awesome, and very much appreciated.

There’s even a little audio description project I’d like to give a shout out to, which you can find at youdescribe.org. The goal is to actually describe Youtube videos. Viewers can then listen to the described versions, and even request descriptions for videos that aren’t currently audio described. It’s all done by volunteers too, so anyone who is willing to help out can record an audio description for a video. Descriptions can be rated, though, to help avoid the haters who would record trollish things. It’s an awesome idea, and apparently has gained a lot of traction, as you can find quite a few videos there.

I think that about covers my current thoughts on audio description. In summary, I’m so happy with where we are with it right now. I’m overrun, yes, but that’s a wonderful, wonderful hing. Better to have too many choices than not enough. It’s a good time to be a movie fan. Thanks again for reading, guys, and continue to be awesome!

The Xbox One from a BLind Gamer’s Perspective

Well folks, I have now spent a significant amount of time with the Xbox One, and I feel I can now report accurately on its accessibility. This post has been a long time coming, but as it turns out, that’s a good thing. Initially I told you all that I would not be able to experiment with the Xbox One’s TV functionality, as we didn’t have that kind of setup in the room where we game. Well, some things have changed, and the result is that the Xbox One is now in our living room, connected to the cable box. So, as it happens, I can report on that aspect of the console as well.

Let’s start with the basics, though. The console, much like the PS4, is extremely easy, though for a different reason. The menu of the Xbox One is sort of reminiscent of the Xbox360 in the way it controls, though I do not believe you’ll find things are in the same place. Yet still, the menu structure of the PS4, as I’ve already explained in its article, is even easier than that. However, what makes the Xbox One so simple is the voice control. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice control is fantastic. I can very, very easily launch any game I like, I can search for things on Bing, (though I’m still working out how to interact with those things once you find them), and yes, I can control the TV and cable box with ease.

Remember the problem with Killer Instinct I talked about in the “What we Know” article? Well, it turns out that’s not actually a problem at all. The new Killer Instinct is called Killer Instinct, but the older game is called Killer Instinct Clasic. Refer to them this way wit your voice, and you’ll be fine.

I also talked about using pins as a way to find things easily, well I’ll be honest, I haven’t used them at all. Why? Because I don’t need them. Voice control has worked so well with everything that I no longer see as much of a need for them as I originally did.

One of the Xbox One’s greatest features is it’s Game DVR. This enables you to record and share clips of your gameplay over the Xbox One community. Anyone can watch them, and your clips may end up featured on the game’s store page, where they can be watched before someone purchases a particular game to see how that game is. It should be noted that game clips can actually be viewed from the Smartglass app, not just the onsole, making it possible for us to view them as well. Yet even so, for the sighted, the PS4’s ability to record game clips is better. You get 15 minutes maximum per clip on the PS4, and only 5 minutes on the Xbox One. But you see, this is one of those things where the way the Xbox One works gives it the advantage here.

My favorite command right now is “Xbox, record that.” Why? Because that’s literally all you have to say. Say that, and the Xbox One, which is always recording the last 5 minutes or so of your gameplay much like a DVR for TV records all the time to enable you to pause and rewind, will grab the last 30 seconds of your gameplay, convert it into a clip, upload it to the community in general, and share it with your friends. All that, with one command. Sure it’s only 30 seconds, but if you do something awesome and you want to share it, that’s a really easy way to do so. There doesn’t yet exist a PS4 command that will allow us to do that, so recording and sharing gameplay there would be much, much more difficult.

Now, Xbox One does have an upload studio from which you can capture and share longer clips, (up to 5 minutes as mentioned before), but I don’t yet believe that is accessible to us. It can be controlled with voice commands, but it seems as though you have to know which clip number you’re dealing with, and I don’t think it’s possible to trim the clip down to what you want to show with your voice. I may do more research on that later, though. Maybe with the controller, something could be memorized regarding that. You can even add commentary to clips, so it would be interesting to find out how that works.

One of the greatest features of the Xoox One is the ability to scan in redeemable codes with the Kinect instead of having to enter them manually. Best of all, this is something we as blind people can do. Say “Xbox, use code,” hold the card with the code on it up to the Kinect, and wait a few seconds. There is unfortunately no audio indication that the code was successfully scanned, though it visually presents the results on screen, telling you what the code will give you. Still, if you then say “confirm,” and the Xbox responds to it, you know your scan was successful, and the code redeemed. Whatever it was you redeemed should then begin downloading, and you’re set. Yes, we can use the web site for codes we get in emails and so on, but this enables us to redeem those codes we can’t necessarily read by ourselves. That’s pretty big if you ask me.

Now, let’s talk TV. Not gonna lie, I would recommend sighted help with the initial setup. You have to choose what type of TV you have since the Kinect can function as your remote, you have to choose your cable provider, and what type of cable box you have, and so on. Once its all done, though, it works great. Since the Kinect is also your remote, you can use it to control even things like your TV volume by saying things like “Xbox, Volume Up.” And changing channels is also easy. I wanted to wathc wrestling Monday night, yeah I do that. So down I went to our living room, and I said “Xbox, watch USA.” A few seconds later, it went straight to that channel. I pumped up the volume, and enjoyed. It’s that easy. The one drawback right now is that you have to call out the channel name, and cannot use channel numbers. I predict this may change in the future.

Another small feature that is nevertheless an important one is the Kinect’s way of signing in. When you set up your profile, you can have the Kinect create a facial recognition ID for you, and you will then be signed in automatically whenever you walk into the room with the Kinect in it.Trust me guys, this really works, even if someone else is standing in front of the Kinect when you walk in. Its field of view is extremely large. But hey, even if you don’t want to do that, there is another great way to sign in. Just say “Xbox, sign in,” and then your real name, and in you go. All I have to say is “Xbox, Sign in Brandon,” and it’s done. Another thing made easier with Kinect.

I think it’s pretty obvious what my conclusion here is. The Kinect is finally, finally where we wanted it to be 3 years ago. It is, in fact, the key to the accessibility of the entire console, what with its ability to get to apps quickly, the code-scanning, the quick and easy gameplay recording and sharing, and even the sign in functionality. Smartglass is also a big help to us, but the Kinect is really what makes this console work well for the blind. Does that make it the best console? Absolutely not. I know for a fact some people don’t like talking to their devices. Some people may always prefer an accessible and easy controller-based interface, and I think the PS4 wins out there. Still, the Xbox One has shonwn itself to be a perfectly legitimate choice for blind console gaming. Thanks for reading, all, and as always feel free to comment on this post, or send me an email at superblindman01@gmail.com or contact me on twitter @superblindman or whatever you prefer. I would be glad to discuss both consoles, and I hope all these posts have provided you with something to think about. Thanks again!