ASCII by Jason Scott

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DVDs for the Blind —

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it. DVDs for the blind. What are the blind watching DVDs for. There’s nothing to watch, really. Go listen to an audiobook or something, blind people.

Well, you might be surprised to hear that the blind do buy DVDs, and play them, and enjoy the movies. Not all of them, but not everybody watches DVDs at all, so this isn’t surprising. In another useful bit of evidence on the side of the anti Digital Rights Management crowd, the blind often end up having to rip the DVDs and extract the various titles/parts out of the DVD so they can play stuff without being hung up on menus and special features and easter eggs and the rest. They turn a DVD into a series of audio tracks in a playlist and go through those, basically.

A number of the interviewees of GET LAMP are blind. Just like the BBS Documentary put me in the homes of midwesterners for the first time, so has GET LAMP caused me to spend time with blind people for extended periods, in real conversation. One thing I learned was that blind is relative; a number of my blind interviewees can see, just not very well at all; one was born with no lenses on her eye. One is aware of some aspect of light, but it’s absolutely an abstract hue. And so on.

Another thing I learned (or re-learned) is how flexible the human mind is; it will try to place items even though one might think it wouldn’t have any context. “Flame” means one thing, “mountain range” another, and interviewees mentioned how much text adventures expanded their knowledge of the world because you could “walk” among places with no guidance and all the salient features explained to you, right there. One mentioned how he didn’t understand how big an ocean liner was until he played a game that took place on one, and so on. Another was very sad for sighted people because of all the years we’ve watched television at 720×540 resolution. That’s so sad! His resolution is infinite.

As I interviewed someone who was deaf for my previous film and resolved then and there they should enjoy it like everyone else, so too does the interviewing of several blind subjects mean that I want them to enjoy the DVD as well. Hence, a blind-accessible DVD.

As opposed to my militancy regarding subtitles, I realize that I’m much further out on the edge with wanting to make a DVD blind or visually-impaired accessible. There’s just not a metric ton of these things.

I found a DVD that claims to be the first blind accessible DVD, with menus and the rest. That’s true, as long as you know what submenu to magically navigate to to turn it on. As my friend Andy loves to say, FAIL.

What is likely to happen with my DVDs is that when you put them in, it acts like any other DVD, but the first selection is an introduction to the disc, which says, out loud, what to hit to start audio menus. From there, we can have a bunch of other features, but then both “types” (blind and not blind) are happy. I hope. It’s the wheelchair ramp problem; functionality vs. aesthetics. I’ve seen it done right and wrong.

This means the episodes or films on this set will have descriptive video. Experiments are underway for that. It also means that everything gets descriptive video. This delays the project, or more accurately, the project takes the right amount of time to do this properly.

If you’re feeling cynical, you can also tell me how brilliant I am to market to the blind; the blind, after all, often were big customers of text adventures because these were games that were basically complete and total when read to you. You could play them in audio and get the same experience as others. And they were easy to hack into screen readers, since they always wrote to text rendering instead of doing graphics or whatever else your system used. So these were very popular so hooray, more potential customers. If it’s not obvious, this isn’t my main motivating factor, otherwise I’d “spice up” the whole movie with stuff that might, somewhere, appeal to a general audience even if it didn’t have anything to do with text adventures. Where does that crap end, anyway.

As I work this point, it also means I look at my editing in a different way; when you know your work has to be portrayed as much as it’s shown, you really want to smooth the thing out to the best quality. If I’m going to spend an extra week recording descriptive video, then it should be something worth describing.

We live in this great modern age, where machines can do an awful lot for everyone to enjoy content like never before. I hope this DVD set will be a favorite for blind viewers for a long time to come.


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7 Comments

  1. Joey says:

    Aresome post. I once knew a legally blind guy who had just enough sight with his face right IN the monitor to enjoy playing quake.

    I hadn’t heard of descriptive video at all before. Neato.

    This is probably an obvious and/or stupid suggestion, but it’s a DVD about text adventures. So its menus could be well, a mini text adventure (with audio too). Which would make the aestetics of presenting the DVS audio less of a problem since it wouldn’t need to be the very first thing that comes up but could just be a natural choice available in the game.

    Also, I think the descriptions in the DVS will add a whole adventure game overlay to the documentary. “You’re in a living room. Sitting on the couch is an intense looking guy with little hair. You notice a brass lamp, strangely out of place in the corner.” So now I’m going to have to watch the documentary with that turned on, even though my sight is good. :-)

  2. Dave Ross says:

    We buy the region 2 Doctor Who discs, and they have audio menus like you described. It’s a nice touch. I think there’s descriptive audio as well, but I haven’t explored the discs much.

    I say “go for it”.

    And, yes, I realize this will have me waiting longer :P

  3. Michael Kohne says:

    I’ve noticed that some DVD’s have short video segments playing as their menu choices. Can’t these segments have audio? In other words, could each choice on the menu simply announce what it is while it’s selected? Since those little loops play repeatedly, it would be saying it over and over, so you can navigate by clicking through to the next item and listen for a second.

    Coupled with a linear menu style (such that pressing a particular menu button repeatedly gets to all the items and then back to the first), you could have all the menus be blind accessable from the get-go, and without sacrificing anything for the sighted.

    As a sighted person, I’d like a linear menu style, so that I don’t have to guess which button takes me to the item I want. On too many DVDs I have to spend a lot of time guessing which button goes which way.

    And let me state again how much I like that you’re planning to put good effort into your sub-titles. I don’t need them, but I often leave them turned on, and I hate bad sub-titles.

  4. Lee Seitz says:

    Jason, are you planning on writing and/or recording the descriptive video yourself or hiring someone with experience in this kind of thing? Just curious.

  5. Flack says:

    I remember on my old DVD player, you could punch in a number at the main menu and it would jump to that track or chapter or whatever. I don’t know if this works on all DVDs and/or DVD players, but if it does, maybe it could be exploited somehow? Maybe you could have an audio introduction that says, “press 1 on your remote for the blind-friendly version” (you’ll probably have a better name for it than that). But then chapter 1 could set the audio/video combo you want.

    I’ve never thought about it before. I guess there’s a line somewhere between being blind-friendly and annoying to sighted viewers. I’m sure you’ll find the proper balance.

  6. sln says:

    Wow, Jason. You never cease to amaze me with your drive to just “do the right things right”. Thank you!

  7. Jason, this is brilliant! I want you to have my babies.

    I am a blind person, and although I’m not that hot at reading text, I can enjoy screens full of video, especially now that we’ve got 30, 40 or 50 inch screens.

    The technology is all there to give someone like me a superb movie experience. Great quality images, stereo surround-sound, audio description, what more could I want?

    Well, actually, the problem is not the video display but using controls to manipulate it as a fully-sighted person can. Consider the YouTube video. At the bottom you get a series of white blobs on a white bnackground. If you’re me, you haven’t a clue what they’re supposed to do. The digital TV controls are all a great mystery to me, and there’s no way on most TVs to use the menus or buttons that give you all those state-of-the-art facilities that in theory are all there.

    So more power to your elbow if you intend to do things the right way.

    As expertise in making things accessible spreads, surely there won’t be so much of a delay in the production process. So I’m terminally optimistic, just as I am when I expect cars not to run me over.

    Now I wonder whether I can post this without having to get through a visual-only CAPTCHA…..

    Vince.