Audio technology helps blind people watch Australian Open tennis tournament

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Fast, echoing pops ring in Michael Marshall’s ears as he listens to an Australian Open tennis match, followed by high and low pitched clatter. Three bounces to the left signal that the ball has landed near the touchline; A low hit means the player has returned it with a backhand stroke.

Without context, these noises can look like arcade sound effects or some new version of Morse code – but each noise is a message meant to help people who are blind or have limited vision follow along. game. A new technology, called Action Sound, is being tested on a large scale for the first time at this year’s Australian Open, where every match in the Rod Laver Arena is played. available on a live stream with this accessibility feature.

Marshall, 35, of Melbourne, is an avid tennis fan who listens to the tournament on the radio every year. He said Action Audio added a layer to his experience, allowing him to more clearly track the ball in a moment.

“Everything was like, oh, yeah, this is the last piece I was missing,” Marshall said. Then he added, “It gives you cues that you’ve never really had before.”

He and other blind sports fans often listen to radio descriptions of games instead of watching them on TV. But with serves flying at more than 100 miles per hour and frequent hits in excess of 80, even the most descriptive broadcaster can’t speak fast enough to capture every nuance of the action. on the tennis court. Machar Reid, Tennis Australia’s head of innovation, said details such as how close the ball landed, its travel speed and direction of travel were not always descriptive.

“They can do it in one shot, but it’s very difficult to do on every shot of the protest,” he said of the radio announcers.

Tennis Australia partnered with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and media and digital design agency AKQA to develop Action Audio in 2019. Reid says tennis is the ideal sport to start because of the public its existing ball tracking technology. In general, a fully equipped tennis court has 10 or 12 cameras that collect data about 50 times a second. That data is often used to make quick calls about whether a shot is on target.

Action Audio’s technology converts data into 3-D audio – a process that happens in less than a second – allowing the data to be transmitted along with live radio commentary.

Sounds include one, two or three knife strokes to indicate how close the ball is to the line or line. If the ball gets close to the line, three knives will be fired. If the ball lands further inside the line, two pops will be heard. A stroke means the ball has been hit towards the center of the field.

Sound comes through the left speaker if the ball is played towards that side of the field and through the right speaker if the ball lands on the right.

As the ball moves around, it jingles and rattles. The sound is loudest when the player hits the ball and fades away as the ball moves. High-altitude winks indicate a forehand, while low-elevation blinks indicate a backhand.

In the future, Reid is keen to integrate Action Sound into TV programming and develop it for other sports that use optical tracking systems, such as baseball, he said.

According to Tim Devine, executive innovation manager at AKQA, a challenge in developing sports sound is determining how much action can be captured and converted to audio before the sound becomes overwhelming. or lose focus.

“Do you want to know where the ball is or do you want to follow a player?” he asks.

To find that out, AKQA and Tennis Australia reached out to fans to ask them what they found most exciting about tennis and then surveyed visually impaired people to see which audio worked best. The developers tried to use sounds that were already familiar to users, such as the jingle of the bell ball used in blind tennis, Reid said.

The developers are also gathering feedback from followers of this year’s Action Audio live stream, which attracts listeners from around 70 countries.

Karl Belanger, an accessibility analyst with the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, was among those listeners. He was listening to an audio stream provided by Tennis Australia last week when he heard an advertisement for Action Audio. He watched with excitement but became frustrated that the website’s design wasn’t fully compatible with the screen reader technology that visually impaired people use to decipher web pages.

“One layer of it is like keeping the whole experience intact where you have to fight players to experience it,” says Belanger.

The developers acknowledge Action Audio is a work in progress and say that AKQA and Tennis Australia will work to make it more accessible to players.

To get the full benefits of Action Audio, listeners need headphones or speakers that can separate sound for the left and right ears. Without this, the audio wouldn’t be useful, says Belanger.

Belanger suggests other improvements – such as the sound when the ball hits the net – but overall, the sound landscape is well designed. As a sports fan, he wanted the same concept to be used for every sport.

For some blind and low vision fans, Action Audio makes it easier for you to enjoy the game with friends and family. Kala Petronijevic, 11, from Melbourne, is blind in her right eye and has limited vision in her left eye.

Kala has been playing blind tennis since the age of 5. She is a big fan of the sport, but she doesn’t always enjoy watching the games. She used to have to constantly ask her father who hit the ball and what was going on.

“It was difficult watching the game,” said Kala. “I really don’t care because I don’t know what’s going on. But with Action Audio, I can follow the match in time”.

Sound by Adrienne Hurst. Audio technology helps blind people watch Australian Open tennis tournament

Fry Electronics Team

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