Audio technology helps blind people follow the Australian Tennis Open

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android . Rapid, resonant pops ring ...


To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.


Rapid, resonant pops ring in Michael Marshall’s ears as he listens to an Australian Open tennis match, followed closely by high-pitched and low-pitched ringing. Three left pops signal that the ball has landed near the line; a low rattle means the player returned it with a backhand shot.

Without context, these noises may sound like arcade sound effects or a new version of Morse code – but each is a message intended to help people who are blind or have limited vision follow the game. A new technology, called Action Audio, 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 available live with this accessibility feature.

Marshall, 35, from Melbourne, is a tennis enthusiast who listens to the tournament on the radio every year. He said Action Audio added a layer to his experience, allowing him to follow the ball more clearly during a point.

“Everything is like, oh, yeah, that’s the last piece I’m missing,” Marshall said. He later added, “It gives you those clues that you never really had before.”

He and other blind sports fans often listen to descriptions of games on the radio instead of watching them on television. But with serves flying over 100 miles per hour and groundstrokes regularly exceeding 80, even the most descriptive radio announcer can’t talk fast enough to capture all the nuances of the action on a short mile. tennis. According to Machar Reid, chief innovation officer at Tennis Australia, details such as how close the ball was to a line, how fast it traveled and the direction it traveled are not always described.

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

Tennis Australia partnered with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and digital design and communications agency AKQA to develop Action Audio in 2019. Reid said tennis was the perfect sport to start with due of its existing ball tracking technology. Typically, a fully equipped tennis court has 10 or 12 cameras that collect data approximately 50 times per second. This data is typically used to make quick calls to find out if a shot has landed in or out of play.

Action Audio’s technology converts the data into 3D sound – a process that takes less than a second – allowing it to be broadcast alongside live radio commentary.

Sounds include one, two or three beeps to indicate how close the ball is to the sideline or baseline. If the ball is close to the line, three blips will fire. If the ball lands further inside the line, two beeps sound. A blip means the ball was hit towards the middle of the court.

Sounds come through the left speaker if the ball was played on that side of the court, and through the right speaker if it landed on the right.

As the ball moves, it tinkles and vibrates. The sound is loudest when the player hits the ball and gradually fades as the ball moves. High-pitched jingles indicate a forehand, while low-pitched jingles indicate a backhand.

In the future, Reid would like to integrate Action Audio into television broadcasts and develop it for other sports that use optical tracking systems, such as baseball, he said.

According to Tim Devine, Executive Director of Innovation at AKQA, one of the challenges of developing sports soundscapes is determining how much action can be captured and translated into sound before the audio becomes overwhelming or distracting.

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

To figure this out, AKQA and Tennis Australia reached out to fans to ask what they found most interesting about tennis, then interviewed blind people to see which sounds worked best. The developers tried to use sounds already familiar to users, such as the clanking of the bell used in blind tennis, Reid said.

The developers are also collecting feedback from people who tune in to this year’s Action Audio live stream, which attracted listeners from around 70 countries.

Karl BĂ©langer, accessibility analyst for the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, is one of those listeners. He was listening to the audio feed provided by Tennis Australia last week when he heard an advertisement for Action Audio. He was excited to get online, but became frustrated because the site’s design wasn’t fully compatible with the screen reader technology blind people use to decipher web pages.

“That layer of it kind of ruins the whole experience when you have to fight with the player to even experience it,” Belanger said.

The developers acknowledged that Action Audio was a work in progress and said AKQA and Tennis Australia would work to make the player more accessible.

To take full advantage of Action Audio, listeners need headphones or speakers that can separate sounds for left and right ears. Without it, Belanger said, audio isn’t as useful.

Belanger suggested other improvements — like a sound when the ball hits the net — but overall, he said, the soundscape was well-designed. As a sports fan, he now wants the same concept to be used for all sports.

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

Kala has been playing blind tennis since she was 5 years old. She is a big fan of the sport, but she hasn’t always enjoyed watching the games. She used to constantly ask her dad who hit the ball and what was going on.

“It was difficult to follow the game,” Kala said. “I wouldn’t really be interested because I wouldn’t know what was going on. But with Action Audio, I can follow the game quickly.

Sound produced by Adrian Hurst.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Audio technology helps blind people follow the Australian Tennis Open
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