The UniDescription Project: Seeking to Bring Unity to the World of Audio Description
The term "audio description" is most commonly associated with verbal descriptions of scenery, characters, and events in television, film, and theater productions. Though this is the most common application for audio description, it can be applied in other arenas, such as describing a painting, artifact, or landscape. The UniDescription project (UniD) from the University of Hawaii aims to bring audio description to these areas by providing audio description for National Park Service brochures and other visual media. In addition, they have produced an open source tool that allows others to produce audio description in a variety of formats. The UniD project also has an app containing audio-described National Park Service brochures available on the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store. In this article, I will detail the project and its history as well as explore the iOS and Android apps.
History of UniD
The UniD project began in 2014 when the National Park Service through the Harpers Ferry center partnered with Dr. Brett Oppegaard, professor in the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii to produce audio description for National Park brochures. The original grant provided funding for about 40 brochures and a digital container for storing and organizing the content. In addition to Dr. Oppegaard, Dr. Megan Conway and Dr. Thomas Conway from the University of Hawaii Center for Disability Studies became part of the project.
The team first produced the Web tool called UniD, which is used for creating the audio descriptions. Descriptions can be produced in audio format (MP3) but also in digital text (HTML) so that a user can use their own screen access software to read the descriptions. Subsequently, the team began working to produce audio descriptions for National Park brochures. Three parks originally joined the effort with 7 taking part in the first "Descript-a-thon" to produce audio descriptions in a shared space. The first descriptathon took place in September 2016. The most recent took place in February 2018 and included 30 parks.
In addition, the team has been researching and presenting on their research methods and findings during the development of this project. For example, Dr. Oppegaard presented a paper regarding the project at the International Communication Association Mobile preconference?in May of 2015. With a grant from Google and in conjunction with the American Council of the Blind (ACB) the UniD team produced audio description for brochures in parks across California.
The team has also released a mobile app on both iOS and Android, which houses over 50 brochures for national parks across the country. In November of 2017, the team tested the app live at Yosemite National Park. The Web tool used for creating the descriptions has seen use outside of the project as well. For example, the embassy of Afghanistan used the tool to audio-describe their brochure for their disability rights conference, and a student at the university of Milan used the tool in their thesis.
Audio Descriptions Produced by the UniD Project
Most descriptions are housed in the UniD apps though some brochures have been provided on the UniD site. When viewing descriptions on the site, I used the latest version of the NVDA screen reader and the Firefox Web browser. The descriptions listed on the site provide the content of the brochures in HTML format and can also be viewed through an embedded Web player for prerecorded audio. When navigating the controls of the Web player, I found that buttons were not always read correctly. This took the form of the label of a button being read in place of another. For example, if I moved from the "Play" button to the "Rewind" button, it may say "Play" instead of "Rewind." This was not a persistent issue so only served to cause momentary confusion. In addition, if you use a screen reader it may start repeating the word "stopped" when the page for a brochure loads. This seems to be caused by indications from the audio players on the page; halting speech from the screen reader stops these instantly.
The descriptions as part of the UniD project follow a similar format. Each brochure will have a "Quick Overview" section that provides a high-level description of the brochure and its contents. Photos and text might be mentioned but are described in their entirety in other sections. On the website, each section of the brochure is proceeded by a heading with an audio player below the photos and/or text.
I found the descriptions to be quite well written. I was particularly impressed with the map descriptions, which are quite detailed. As an example, when describing the location of the Denali national park in the state of Alaska, the description continues to describe the shape of the state and place its borders in context to other regions. The descriptions of landscapes are quite picturesque and will often provide details on the colors and appearance of physical features such as mountains or trees. I was interested to see the numerous descriptions of wildlife in the Yellowstone National Park brochure. There is a section of the brochure that depicts many animals that can be seen in the park. After listing the animals, each is described. The descriptions are incredibly detailed; the animal's physical features are described along with their posture, orientation to other animals, and size.
The UniD Apps
The UniD apps can be downloaded for free from the iOS app store and Google Play Store. Both apps are identical; if there are differences in how VoiceOver or TalkBack interact with the apps it will be noted below.
When you first launch the app, you are presented with a welcome screen. It contains a sample description and information regarding the app and project. I found that it was possible to swipe left out of the welcome page to the content beneath even though it is not shown visually.
The app's main interface contains a vertical list of brochures. You can search for a specific brochure and also have the ability to sort the list by name or by state. Loading a brochure presents an HTML page with the brochure's contents. The key difference between the presentation in the app and on the UniD site is that it is possible to show only the text, audio players, or both. The brochure shown as text only appears quite similar to the brochures on the website simply without the audio players beneath each section. The page does look significantly different with text hidden. When viewing only audio content, you will see each section displayed one after another. Activating any section will launch the audio player and begin playing.
I only encountered a few issues when using the apps to view brochures. When a brochure is launched, it must first load. If you navigate with left or right swipes when using VoiceOver you may encounter a situation in which you will cycle between the brochure title and the loading message. If you touch somewhere on the display, you can then navigate through the brochure with swipe gestures. Playing audio content using the Web player worked well on iOS but when I did so on Android, TalkBack repeated the word "Playing" continuously during audio playback. I was unable to find a TalkBack setting that would prevent this.
The Bottom Line
The UniDescription project has already made significant strides in bringing accessibility to print brochures at national parks with at least 50 available in the app by my count. In addition, the fact that the Web tool that is used for creating and distributing the descriptions is free and open source can serve as a useful tool for other institutions. I could easily imagine the format of the brochures used to provide descriptions of items at museum exhibits and the print information accompanying them. The descriptions in the brochures were excellent; I particularly appreciated the attention to detail in the descriptions of images and maps. There were a few minor issues in the smartphone apps, though nothing that would prove a barrier to use. If you are visiting one of the national parks described by the UniD project or simply want to learn more about the various parks and monuments in the US, the UniD project would serve as an excellent resource.
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