New research project makes sound sense

Published: 28 January 2015 at 10:55

Anglia Ruskin expert designs alternative to audio description for people with sight loss.

An alternative to traditional audio description, added to TV and film for visually impaired audiences, is being developed by an audio expert at Anglia Ruskin University.

Dr Mariana Lopez, a researcher at Anglia Ruskin’s Cultures of the Digital Economy (CoDE) research institute, is carrying out a pilot study to explore how a story can be told without the need for visual elements or an audio description track.

By focusing on new sound design techniques and the creative use of surround sound, Dr Lopez hopes the format – called audio film – will become a standard part of the creative filmmaking process and eventually both sighted and visually impaired audiences will enjoy the same soundtrack.

Sound effects are used both to represent actions and as “soundmarks” to help the listeners identify the different spaces in the narrative.  Artificial reverberation is employed to provide each space with a characteristic sound, and surround sound is used to suggest the layout of the spaces as well as indicate the movement of the characters.

Her prototype has been tested with the collaboration of volunteers with sight loss – recruited with the help of Cam Sight, Action for Blind People, the British Computer Association and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) – at Anglia Ruskin’s Digital Performance Lab.

Initial trials have been successful, with the majority of participants recognising all key plot elements and indicating that the story was easy to follow.  Importantly, they also found the experience to be entertaining.

The pilot has focused on ‘sweet-spot’ listening but future research, which will include collaborations with RNIB, Sensor Media and the University of York, will work with alternative systems such as Dolby Atmos.

Dr Lopez said:

“One of the problems with traditional audio description is that it is not part of the creative process, which means that the interpretation of the film provided in the audio described track does not necessarily represent the artistic vision of the filmmaker.

“This study investigates ways in which audio descriptions could be incorporated into the production and post-production workflows used in film and television.

“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.”