This episode of Inform & Connect features a duo who share a true passion for bringing accessible entertainment to the blind and visually impaired community as well as the hearing impaired community through iOS devices. John Sweet and Petr Kucheryavyy of Charter Communications will discuss their work on Spectrum Access, a free app designed to provide entertainment access to persons with vision or hearing impairments. The app enhances the in-home entertainment experience by enabling customers to play audio description or closed captioning directly from their phone or tablet.
Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist, will guide the conversation about the creation of the app, how it works, and where they see it going in the future.
“When I first downloaded this app I was so impressed with how easy it is to use,” Melody said. “I look forward to have an interactive conversation with this innovative team!”
Melody: And I'm really excited to have with us, John Sweet from Spectrum Access. And I'm really, really excited too, because we get to learn about a tool that we can use, which I've already used and love it so much. So without a further ado, hi, John, how are you today?
John Sweet: Hey Melody. It's great to talk to you.
Melody: It's so great to talk to you too. I am so excited to have you here. It's going to be, I'm really excited to talk about what you're doing at Spectrum Access and can you sort of tell us what it is you do there?
John Sweet: Yeah, so I work for Charter Spectrum, which is a cable company, second biggest in the country. And I wear a lot of hats, but currently my primary role is the head of innovation. And this app Spectrum Access, which we're going to talk about, is the first product of innovation from the accessibility team at Charter Spectrum. So it came out in early May on iPhone and iPads, and we're looking at an Android release at the end of the year.
Melody: Oh, yay. Actually, I was going to ask that too.
John Sweet: Yeah. I've got that question from a lot of people so.
Melody: Let me just get that right now. That is awesome. So tell us about how this app came about.
John Sweet: Sure. Yeah. This is a fun story actually, and it involves Peter K., who I believe is just joining us too.
Petr Kucheryavyy: Hi.
Melody: Petr. Hi.
Petr Kucheryavyy: Hi there.
Petr Kucheryavyy: No worries. It's Petr Kucheryavyy.
Melody: Thank you. And it is so nice to have you.
John Sweet: Rolls off the tongue.
Melody: Rolls right off the tongue, yes. Petr, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself?
Petr Kucheryavyy: Sure, absolutely. So of course my name is Petr Kucheryavyy and I'm on the accessibility team at Charter Communications or Spectrum as we're known to our customers and my role is, I lead the outreach for our team. So really, I build a bridge between our team or our company and the community that we serve. So connecting us with the advocacy organizations and the community partners and others, our customers who have disabilities, really creating a two way stream of information, where we both share what we're doing with them. And also learn from our customers about how we can be implementing the products and features that they really want to see most. So I absolutely love that aspect of what I do.
And internally I do a lot of etiquette trainings. So those who are blind or visually impaired are probably familiar with that term because that means that, some education is happening internally. And I think that's really important in order to really serve our customers well, we have to understand more about the way that they want us to engage them, so that's my role.
Melody: I love it. That is great. Having that two-way connect street is so important. So Petr, John was getting ready to tell us a fun story to how Spectrum Access got started this great app that I am madly in love with.
John Sweet: So the story starts about two, two and a half years ago, and Petr was there for some of it. So Petr, you can correct the details, but basically I was going to a friend's house for a May the 4th party where we were going to watch the first three or the oldest three star Wars movies, New Hope through Return of the Jedi. And I invited Petr K. to come with me and watch them. And Peter K basically said, "John, they're not audio described. Why am I going to watch them?" And I was just completely taken aback. And when I checked on Amazon and wherever I could stream the movies, sure enough, no audio description for the original Star Wars movies, which I just is a travesty, they’re some of my favorite movies.
Melody: And Petr I'm with you.
Petr Kucheryavyy: And John of course, is leaving out the fact that he berated me for never seeing it first.
John Sweet: Yeah I did do that.
Melody: I will berate with you because Petr, myself being totally blind and my son who we were interested in these movies, I get you.
John Sweet: Mm-hmm.
Melody: Okay, sorry, continue John I didn't mean to gang up on you.
John Sweet: No. I deserved it. So that kind of started a search for out of band solutions to audio description. And by that, I mean, if you're going to watch a movie either you're getting it from a DVD rental or you're streaming it these days. And so in terms of out of band, I just mean finding any other way to get audio description. And that led me ultimately to this app called Actiview. And I got in touch with the creator and owner and founder at the time Alex Koren. And he had been working tirelessly as not quite a one man operation, but a very small team building out this app, coming up with an algorithm that makes the syncing function work, which we'll get into and also going to studios and asking them for audio description assets as a single person, I think he was 23 years old at the time.
Melody: Oh, wow.
John Sweet: So he's a remarkable person. And so we started this relationship and the promise and the potential of the app was just so obvious from the beginning. So I was able to sell the app as just a prospective solution to our VP and our EDP at product over here at charter spectrum. And by November of 2019, Alex had agreed to an acquisition. And so Charter bought Actiview. We worked with the algorithm and turned it into Spectrum Access. And now really, a lot of the hard work is over. Although now the job is to get content into the app and that's turning out to be, that's also a job in itself and adventure, I'll say.
Melody: I can imagine. That is an amazing story. I love the part where you were talking about the syncing feature, because I have used it multiple times, which is great, but can you tell the audience how that works?
John Sweet: Yeah.
Melody: John or Peter?
John Sweet: Yeah.
Petr Kucheryavyy: Go ahead John.
John Sweet: I'll take that. So yeah, for those who haven't used the app or are curious how it works, from a user standpoint, you will find a movie that you want to watch within the app or a TV show. I'll actually get to that in a second. So we have over 400 movies and right now, only for TV shows, but that's growing.
John Sweet:So you download the episode or the movie that you want to watch the audio description file for it. And then you play the movie from whatever source you want. So whether you're streaming it from Hulu or you're watching it, hopefully on your Spectrum TV on demand, or even if you're watching it from a VHS, it still works. So you start the movie and then on your app, you just hit that sync and play button and the app uses the built-in microphone on your iPhone or your iPad. And it figures out exactly where you are in the movie, that's playing from your TV and starts up the audio description from that point. And the algorithm written to do that was just miraculous when we saw it for the first time.
Melody: That is so exciting. Guys, I'm going to share a little story. We at risk with COVID, we had a fun little like theater here that was outside that was showing Sing as a movie. And it was so cool to be able to sync up that and watch it in the car with my family. And it was so fun.
John Sweet: I love stories like that.
Melody: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. So it's really, really cool. So I love it so much. So I want to ask Petr a question. Petr, when it came to this part of building the app, and you say you're going back and forth with your role of doing that two way street of communication, what kind of questions were you asking the audience about what they wanted in building this app?
Petr Kucheryavyy: Well, you know this well, you don't really have to ask the blind community what they want, right?
Petr Kucheryavyy: When it comes to audio description, that's just really well known. For us the effort was how do we take what we're hearing, and we certainly heard a lot, over the last several years, since I've been with the company, we certainly heard a lot, people want more audio description and we get it. There's an industry wide gap, if you will, in delivering audio description. And we want to be able to solve that problem. But as a company, with our own subset of customers, even if we solved it for our customers, we wouldn't be solving a broader issue that people are facing. And so we wanted to find a solution that we could deliver to everyone. And it seems lofty. It seems big. And it's like, well, how do you capitalize on that? How do you make money off of something that would go to everybody and they're not even your customers?
Petr Kucheryavyy: And I guess what came to our mind is it really doesn't matter. If our customers have been benefiting from it and others are also benefiting from it, then we've not only done our job, but we've gone beyond what we're being asked to do as a company. And so that's really where we started. When John met Alex and we were working with Actiview trying to figure out what that partnership might look like and eventually acquiring the app and rebranding it and just really starting to flood it with assets. I think the exciting part of this is not only are we solving the issue that we heard people mention in the community, but we're also doing it in a way that's removes a lot of barriers to get to the access. So having access to the access. An authenticated app that anybody can use, that makes the sync process really easy. And the less that you can think about having to pull the audio description in and the better. You and I, when we go to a movie theater, we lose about half of our hair, just trying to get some audio description going.
Petr Kucheryavyy: Because that process is just so flawed.
Petr Kucheryavyy: And so when we were thinking about audio description and hearing the requests come through, we really wanted to think about how do we make this a process that's enjoyable and as close to seamless as possible.
Melody: That is such a great. I love how you said removing the barriers because that's part of AFB's mission statement is creating a life of no barriers and a life of no limits. And that's to many things and I think we get, so unemployment is huge. I want to do one a wrap and talk a little bit about that, but that's even to entertainment, because, at the end of the day, after a long day, everyone needs to unwind. And no one wants to rip their hair out in the movie theater, you just don't. So I love it. But you guys, can you talk to me to what I really also love is how you took the time to include closed captioning as well. Was that part of the initial or did you decide to build that in?
John Sweet: Actiview had audio description, closed captioning, sign language, amplified audio.
John Sweet: Actiview was really trying to offer a seamless experience to what you might find in a theater. And that blew us away. Just the capabilities at that time. And when we were starting to look for content to put into the app, we found it is really difficult to produce sign language videos for all these movies that are coming out. So we tried to focus on audio description and closed captioning. And we thought it's built into this app, we can't lose this because, although, the telecom laws cover closed captioning and it's nearly ubiquitous, it just didn't seem right to strip out that capability when we had it already. And it could be needed.
Melody: That is so great. I love it because I mean, you added the piece of inclusion that is so important. So thanks for sharing that with us. Let's go back to, I know you had said that you had some exciting things coming, and I know just for myself being a Spectrum Access app user, that I'm now seeing TV shows, tell us about when it comes to acquisition and creating that and getting the AD in the shows, building your library.
John Sweet: Building the library is, probably the most difficult part so far, and it's also been the part that users and customers have been clamoring for the most. I had maintained an inbox email@example.com, please reach out. And I get emails every single day asking about types of content and when are we getting more content. And so there's a couple of aspects to this. So we work, obviously Charter as a cable provider so we have built in partnerships with programmers and networks, but those relationships are already built a certain way. We're getting certain types of assets. And so asking to add audio description to those negotiations, it's just difficult in a world where a lot of people don't understand what audio description is and its value. So it takes, and not to mention that this app with its syncing capabilities and its downloading feature, it's just not a normal average app.
Melody: It's not.
John Sweet: So explaining that to providers and programmers and networks and getting them on board takes explaining. But what we've found is that with the companies we've been working with, when you can make that connection and get the value across, if it's not already fully understood, that's when things start to really move. So we've been working with Lionsgate was a really early partner. They gave us a lot of movies initially, iNDEMAND is an aggregator company, they've been giving us a lot. And we are working on two deals with, I can't say what they are right now, but they are the two of the major broadcast networks. And I would expect to see some new TV shows and some new movies, content, some really exciting ones coming out very soon.
John Sweet: And you asked me about TV show, so I'll just cover that really briefly. So we released an update last Friday that added a brand new feature, which is TV series. So now in addition to movies, we'll be able to have TV shows.
Melody: Oh fun.
John Sweet: And so we started out just as a testing ground with Spectrum Originals because Charter Spectrum has been producing its own content. They've got some really cool shows like L.A.'s Finest. So if any of you listening, go into the app, you'll see we've got L.A.'s Finest, the reboot of Mad About You, Manhunt, and Curfew. If you're a Spectrum subscriber, you have access to all those shows. But also I'll mention that L.A.'s Finest was picked up on Fox last night and Manhunt which is another really interesting true crime show was picked up by CBS last night as well.
Melody: Wow. That is awesome.
John Sweet:Yeah. So I would watch out for some new content coming your way.
Melody: Okay. That's very exciting. I love it that we get the up and front and coming from you live here on a Wednesday. That's [inaudible]. I love it John. That is awesome. So you guys, we are getting ready to move into that question and answer part, but before we do, if people wanted, one thing you both have talking about, is understanding what AD is. For me, I also look at it as so many different things. It can turn a movie into kind of like an audio book if you're in the car, and it's just that to me, I'm always looking at inclusion for everyone and we are doing that always at AFB because inclusion means everybody's on equal footing. So what would you say to our blind audience to elevate the voice of advocating for audio description to understand. I'm going to map each of you answer this question if you don't mind.
John Sweet: Petr, go ahead.
Melody: He threw you right under the bus there, Petr.
The likelihood that you'll experience a visual impairment like macular degeneration at an older age or a hearing impairment because of age or a mobility impairment also because of age is really, really likely. And you might even experience those at a younger age. Even if it's temporary, right. Being on crutches and that kind of thing, or being in a dark room, or like you pointed out being stuck in traffic or on a long road trip and wanting to participate in a movie that's being played in the car. There's a lot of selfish reasons to advocate for broader access, because it means that you, your kids, your parents, your spouse will at some point almost inevitably benefit from those kinds of developments. So I tell people, design the world for every aspect, every variant of yourself. And you'll thank yourself down the road.
Melody: Petr, That was really, that was beautiful. Thank you so much.
John Sweet: I have to follow that?
Melody: Yes you do, sorry.
Petr Kucheryavyy: You pushed me in first.
Melody: And we scoring too.
John Sweet: There are a lot of benefits to audio description that go beyond just adding that other sense to the movie or the TV experience. For instance, for sighted users, you mentioned Melody if you're in the car, you can turn Netflix into kind of an audio book experience. And same thing if you're home cooking or cleaning, you can still be watching a TV show while you're doing those things. But at the same time, there's also a comprehension aspect to it. For instance, there's a show called Dark on Netflix that involves a dozen characters in five different timelines. So sometimes you just have no idea what this character's name is anymore. And audio description is a solution to that. And I think that, there was a study done in the UK in 2010, where they found that 80% of the people watching programs with closed captioning did not have a hearing impairment or were not hard of hearing.
It was people who wanted to get past the accents, or they wanted to watch TV while they were in meetings or in the bathroom or whatever. And I'd like to see if we can get audio scripts into that same place to see if we can find a general and universal use for it. Because I think that when it's taken up by everyone and everyone, like Petr says can see that selfish motivation to use it. That's when we're going to get not only the volume of audio description programming that we want and that the blind and low vision community deserves, but we're also going to start seeing the quality that organizations like Kevin's Way try to advocate for. So yeah, that's it.
Melody: Now I'm going to follow up by saying, I completely understand. I was talking to you for, I have a ten-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. We were talking a little bit about it before we started, but my son, I walked into his downstairs the other morning and I noticed audio description was on for a cartoon. I don't ever watch. And I was like you can turn that off, buddy. He's like, no, I like it better. It helps me concentrate.
John Sweet: Mm-hmm.
Melody: So I know that's the thing, because he knows that a mom who is blind, but it also made me think, it really does help him with comprehension. So I'm glad you brought that point up actually. That's a really good one when I want to think a little more on, but thank you so much you guys.
John Sweet: I think it’s really valid. Thank you.
Melody: Yes. You guys. Thank you so much. Susan, I want to turn it over to our audience because I'm sure people have questions.
Suzan: Yes. This is a good segue too, because, our first question comes from Roy L. Samuelson, who was our guest last week and was talking about Kevin's Way. So his question is how does Spectrum Access accept independent film titles for audio description?
John Sweet: Sorry, could you repeat that, Suzan?
Suzan: Sure. How does Spectrum Access accept independent film titles for audio description?
John Sweet: Thanks. That's a great question. So up till now, we haven't accepted any individual submissions. So what I would say is if you are a describer or a programmer looking to make that type of submission, please reach out to me, firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond within 48 hours and probably sooner if it's something exciting like that. So please just reach out to me directly and we'll see what we can do.
Melody: And he really does guys, trust me. It's how I met him in 48 hours.
John Sweet: Oh, yeah.
Suzan: Can anyone sign up for the Spectrum Access app and how do you do so?
Melody: Oh, good question.
John Sweet: Absolutely. There is no authentication. You don't have to be a subscriber. All you have to do is go to the App Store search for Spectrum Access. The name in the App Store is Spectrum Access enabled media and download it and you're in.
Petr Kucheryavyy: John, one thing people might be curious about is, is it available internationally or just locally here in the U.S.?
John Sweet: Thanks Petr. So, yeah, obviously we have the burden of licensing restrictions. So right now we're only operating in the United States. I've had so many people reach out from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada. And it's just a matter of time for everyone who's in those countries. So only United States for right now.
Suzan: Great information. Back to you, Melody.
Melody: Thank you. I have just one quick question. When you are thinking ahead where do you see, this is what I wanted to end with now that we have a little bit of time. Where do you see Spectrum Access going? In your dream world, where do you guys see it moving and building?
John Sweet: I guess my blue sky would be first of all, that there's more quality audio description out there. And all of it is in Spectrum Access so we have a library of thousands of movies and all the TV shows you could ask for. And that I want to get to a point at someday where not only do you not have to download the file, but it'll just recognize what you're watching, if you want it to, and that maybe you get to a point where you don't even have to sync it. And it'll just be like an audio book experience. I think that's tough with the way that programmers handle licensing and there's a lot of ownership around these things, but that would be a really cool experience.
Melody: What about you Petr?
Petr Kucheryavyy: Yeah. For me I mentioned the movie theater experience in the hair falling out, dramatically saying that, but the reality is that the more you put control into the user's hands, the person who's requiring or needing the service, or maybe not even requiring, but just wanting it, the better it is. And so, I see down the road for audio description, more empowerment for the user, being able to pull your phone out in a movie theater and synchronize the audio description track to the movie without having to get third-party assistance. And really even further down the road, I'd love to see audio description be assigned to things, like national parks and other places that we visit frequently to be able to just pull that up and empowering the user to really experience the world on equal footing.
Melody: I agree with you wholeheartedly on those two things. And I myself can say that I think all I could speak for a lot of our listeners to because I always get two handheld devices in the theater when I can find the stand as the [inaudible], but what inevitably never worked. So that was one suggestion I put in when I first met John. So yay. Like we're all thinking, but you guys thank you so much. Just want to thank John and Petr for taking time today for joining us here.
Melody: AFB, we are moving into our Centennial year next year. And just seeing innovation like this and forward thinking is something we're really thinking a lot about like where we are, where we came from and where we're going. And I think you both covered that so eloquently with how you feel about audio description, but also in different areas of our lives and learning to be advocates for ourselves and moving that forward because together we can create a life with no limits if we walk hand in hand and do so. So I really believe that and I thank you again so much. If you'd like to learn more about Spectrum Access, John's already given his email address, but you guys want to talk about website or social media handles.
Petr Kucheryavyy: Yeah, sure. John's already mentioned email@example.com is the email inbox that he personally manages. So we encourage people to reach out to that inbox directly for Spectrum Access related questions or feedback. I would say that if you want to know a little more about what Spectrum offers in terms of accessibility across our product lineup, you can visit spectrum.net/page/accessibility, and you'll get a lot more information there about our accessibility offerings. And if you want to reach us directly, our team directly about development related questions or feedback, it's firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melody: Thank you so much, Petr. Thank you so much, John. Thank you for joining us. And if you guys want to learn any more about the American Foundation for the Blind and our programs and initiatives, you can visit us at afb.org. Thank you so much for being here.