Webinar: Audio Description

By: Kevin Erler, Ph.D.

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In this webinar we discuss what audio description is, when you need it, and the different ways of delivering audio description.


Video Transcript

>> Kevin Erler: Hello and thanks for joining us again today. Many of you have worked with us in the past as a provider of transcription and captioning services, but AST also provides Audio Description services. This session is intended to introduce Audio Description, outline some of the terminology and considerations you will encounter with Audio Description, show you what Audio Description “looks” like, and demonstrate how to request Audio Description in CaptionSync.

So let’s get started by exploring what Audio Description is. It is sometimes also called “video description” or “descriptive narration”, and it provides blind and low-vision users with an alternative format for the visual content in your video; Audio Description is to blind users what captioning is to deaf users. Simply put: Audio Description describes the relevant visual content of a video in audio format, with the goal of allowing blind users to access what sighted users are seeing in your video. There is a very important difference from captioning though: captioning is a fairly objective process of transcribing exactly what was spoken whereas description is a more subjective process of figuring out what visual content is relevant and cannot be understood from the audio track alone. Description is not a mechanical process — there is definitely an art to it.

Audio Description is important because it is another aspect of making your content accessible to all users. Because of the complexity and cost of description, it has been largely ignored by many until fairly recently. As costs decline and awareness of accessibility increases, description is slowly becoming more mainstream. One of the key reasons that you are hearing more about description recently is that proposed changes to US accessibility legislation would move to an international accessibility standard known as WCAG 2.0 AA; this standard includes a requirement to have Audio Description for video content. It is also worth mentioning that Audio Description, like all accessibility technologies, can improve the experience and usability of your content for all viewers. Especially for educational content, sighted users can take advantage of the descriptions to get explanations of complex graphs, or other visual content. Like captions, the descriptions can (sometimes) also be used for enhancing the search and navigation features for all users.

One question that often comes up: do I always need to have my videos described. While all video content should be captioned, it is not the case that every video needs to be described. In fact, with a little care, often you can purposefully create your videos such that they do not need description … and that would generally be a good practice. If the speaker in the video takes care to describe all visual content being presented, then the audio track for the video will be sufficient to convey the content and no subsequent description is required. A good deal of educational video content would benefit from this practice anyway. Of course, this is not always possible, and it is important to pay particularly close attention to on-screen text, as well as complex charts, graphs and formulas to ensure they are adequately described.

One term you may see come up in description is “Static Text Alternative”. This refers to a situation that is in-between the case where the narration is complete and no description is required, and the case where full description is needed. Static Text is needed when a single description would suffice for the entire video, such as describing the speaker and background for a “talking-head” video.

So what does good description “look” like? Description is, of course, delivered via audio, so it is heard, not seen. Nonetheless, there is an art to making good descriptions, and a key element of that art is analyzing and understanding the context of the video so that describer is able to capture the relevant visual information. While it is important to avoid over describing and providing too much information, our focus is on educational content, so our goal is to ensure the viewer gets sufficient information to gain a complete understanding of the content. A good summary of the issues that play into good description can be found on the DCMP website.

One of the most important elements to understand about Audio Description is the difference between Traditional description and Extended description. Traditional description, as its name implies, is the way description has been delivered for many years. A describer reviews the video and figures out what needs to be described. The descriptions are then read and squeezed into the gaps in the audio track. These recordings are stored in a secondary audio track that can be enabled or disabled by the viewers. As you can imagine, it can be extremely difficult to fit the description narration into these gaps – describers are forced to pare down descriptions considerably, and speed up the audio playback to fit the descriptions into tight spaces. For content with a dense dialog track, or that requires extensive description, there are usually compromises involved. Traditional description is really the only choice for content where you cannot alter the runtime – like a movie in a theater.

Extended audio description takes a different approach. Playback of the movie is paused when a description is encountered, allowing the description to be read completely without worrying about fitting it into spaces in the existing audio track. This allows for much simpler (that is, cheaper) production because there is no need to shoehorn the descriptions into precise spots on the audio track, and it allows for much more in-depth and complete descriptions to be used. This does alter the runtime of the video, so it would not be appropriate for a theater movie, but it is suitable for on-demand playback video. Many advocates (including AST) argue that, for educational content, extended audio description is the only way to go; providing anything less then extended description for educational content really does not meet the “equally effective communication” standard put forth by the DoJ.

Let’s take a look at a sample of each type of Description so you can really appreciate the difference.
First, I will show you a video with traditional descriptions. I’ll play the first part of the video where you can see description fit in with the music track, then I’ll skip to a later part of the video where you can see that they had more difficult time squeezing in a description.

[ Start of Traditional Description Demo ]
>> Description voiceover: A blue circle has pairs of arcing curves inside. Underneath, Do IT.  Words appear in a white box.  World wide access.
>> Narrator: You want these people. They order your products, sign…. This includes people with disabilities.
>>Description voiceover: Terrill Thompson.
>> Terrill Thompson: It’s important for web designers and developers to realize that what they see currently on their….
[ End of Traditional Description Demo ]

>> Kevin Erler: Next, I will show you extended descriptions playing in the SmartPlayer. Here you will see the video automatically pausing as the descriptions are read out loud.

[Start of Extended Description Demo ]
>> Text-to-speech description: This video features images of stars and planets in space.
>> Narrator: No other topics fascinates both astronomers and the public quite like exoplanets.
>> Text-to-speech description: Three images of round stars with numerous fainter stars shining in the dark sky just above the horizon atmosphere of an exoplanet.
>> Narrator: What do they look like? Could we breathe there? Is life possible on them?
[Start of Extended Description Demo ]

>> Kevin Erler: Because our focus is on educational content, and it is our firm opinion that only Extended Description is suitable for educational content, AST only provides Extended description, and the remainder of this talk with focus on Extended description.

One of the biggest challenges for Audio Description is figuring out how to present described content to your audience. Audio Description requires special support from your media player, and the nature of the support is different for traditional vs extended description. Few players support description, and because extended description is quite a bit more complex to support, even fewer players are available for extended description. They are out there though, and three good choices are the Able Player from the Do-It folks at the University of Washington, a player from Brightcove, and the CaptionSync SmartPlayer.

The CaptionSync SmartPlayer was created to specifically address player support for accessibility features, and offers a seamless way to present captioned and described content. You saw it briefly in the demo we just played, and we have webinars the go into some detail on the player. I just want to highlight the key components of it here. The primary pane of the player is the video pane — the video is embedded from wherever you are hosting it; we do not make a copy of the video or serve the video itself. Under the video, we present a caption text pane; this is separate from the video so that the captions never interfere with the video content. Under the caption text, the SmartPlayer presents the player controls. The CC and AD buttons will appear only if captioning or description has been completed for the video. The SmartPlayer also offers playback speed control, and the ability to share clips of the video via social media. Finally, the transcript pane is presented to the side of the video. This pane allows viewers to see the full transcript, highlighting as it is reached in the video. Descriptions also appear in this panel in the shaded boxes. When the player reaches a description, the video is automatically paused and the description is read. This pane also allows viewers to search the transcript text, get dictionary definitions of words in the text, and access wikipedia references for phrases or terms in the text.

We think the SmartPlayer is one of the best choices available for presenting described content, but as I mentioned earlier there are other choices. First, there are a few other players that support extended description; the Able player is an excellent choice, and Brightcove also has a player. If you are not able to use a player that supports extended description, you could provide a “Full Text Alternative” document along side the video. A Full Text Alternative document shows both the captions and the descriptions presented in the correct sequence in a single text document; each type appropriately tagged to allow navigation via TTS. This option is only single-A compliant, but it is a good alternative when there are technology barriers to presenting extended descriptions in your player. Finally, I will also mention that the defacto standard for storing extended description information is the VTT file format, which can also be used as a closed caption file. So it is also possible to present your descriptions as a second caption track on your video. There are many reasons why this is a sub-optimal choice, and not one that we recommend, but it is a possible solution.

Finally, to wrap up, I just want to quickly take you through how you can request Audio Descriptions from your CaptionSync account. The first step is to make sure Audio Description is enabled on your account. Login to your CaptionSync account, then go to the Settings tab. From here, click on Account Features. You can then select Audio Description from the drop-down menu and then click on the Request button. Adding the service will typically take about five minutes; you will receive an email notification once it is added. Next time you log into your CaptionSync account, you will see a new “Describe” tab at the top.

The next step is to submit your content for captioning. To get a video described, you must first have it captioned. If you are submitting video via our website, you can either use the “New Captioning Submission” page to upload your video to us, or you can use the “New List of URLs” page to submit by giving us the URL to the video. If you wish to use the SmartPlayer, we recommend using the URL submission method, as that allows the SmartPlayer to play back the video from its current location. If you need help figuring out how to set up your content for use in the SmartPlayer, just give us a call.

The last step is to request the Audio Description service. You do not need to wait for the captioning to complete — you can start the description process as soon as you make your captioning submission and the two processes can proceed in parallel. Once you make your captioning submission, there is a limited window to make your audio description request (typically 90 days) because we delete your video file after that period. There are two ways to make your Audio Description request. For the first method, simply go to the Caption tab, then to the Status page, and select the captioning submission of interest. On the submission details page you will find a “Request Audio Description” button for any submission that is still eligible for description.

The alternate method of requesting descriptions is more convenient when you have a batch of material to describe. Once you have made your captioning submissions, go to the “Describe” tab, then to “New Audio Description”. On this page, you can display the caption submissions you have recently made. You can use the search filter to display by date, batch ID, or several other criteria. From the list of submissions displayed, you can simply select which ones you want to have described. Note that if you did not provide a URL to the video when you originally submitted it, you will not be able to generate a SmartPlayer link for that submission — this is identified for you in the submission list.

That wraps up this very brief overview of Audio Description. I realize this information is pretty high-level, but please feel free to reach out to us if you need any help with Audio Description and we’ll be happy to dig into more detailed explanations with you.

Thank you.