Sound experiments to improve films for blind people

Dr Lopez testing the system Image copyright Other
Image caption The new techniques were tested on visually impaired volunteers

Researchers are working on technologies to replace the audio descriptions that help visually impaired people enjoy TV shows and films.

Dr Mariana Lopez, from Anglia Ruskin University, is leading the study to explore how a story can be told without the need for a track describing events.

Her team is using surround-sound and other audio technologies.

Initial trials with volunteers with sight loss have been successful, said Dr Lopez.

"One of the problems with traditional audio description is that it is not part of the creative process," she said.

"The interpretation of the film provided in the audio-described track does not necessarily represent the artistic vision of the film-maker."

It is, she thinks, time for an overhaul.

"Audio description has been around for a few decades and since then we have had some wonderful sound techniques and audio technology but we are not applying them for accessibility."

Murder weapon

A special audio film based on a short story by Roald Dahl called Lamb to the Slaughter was created to prove that it was possible to listen to a film and follow the action without a narration track.

Surround-sound, sound effects, sound-layering and adding acoustical information to a recording such as an echo to indicate someone is in a large space - have been used to help listeners identify different elements of the film.

"The murder weapon was a leg of frozen lamb so we had to find a way to use sound to give a sense of something heavy and frozen and then the sound of a body hitting the ground," explained Dr Lopez.

So-called soundmarks can also be used to denote place - a cuckoo clock, for example, was used to suggest the characters were in a living room.

The audio film was played to a group of volunteers recruited with the help of Action for Blind People, the Royal National Institute of Blind people, Cam Sight and the British Computer Association.

The response was good with volunteers saying that they had enjoyed the experience.

The next stage of the research will be to apply the same techniques to an existing film.

"My aim is to create an enhanced version of audio description that allows both sighted and visually impaired audiences to experience the same soundtrack and, as a result, bridge the gap between the two and encourage social inclusivity," said Dr Lopez.

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