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Talking DVD Menu Tutorial Helps Producers Break Sight Barrier

13 Sep, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

With DVD seemingly taking over the world, it's easy for collectors and even casual viewers to forget there is a large percentage of the population that can only enjoy movies by sound.

In the United States, that number translates to about 12 million people, according to Mary Watkins, the outreach director at the Media Access Group of public broadcaster WGBH Boston.

Although a few studio releases -- like Universal Studios Home Video's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which has audio navigation and description) and DreamWorks Home Entertainment's Road to Perdition (audio description only) -- include features that make videos accessible to the visually impaired, convincing studios to put audio navigation and description tracks on DVDs is still a challenge, Watkins said.

“It's creating awareness within the industry, convincing the studios to put descriptions, to set aside some of the real estate on a DVD for the description track,” she said. “Studios are reformatting the captioning tracks, but they are not picking up the description tracks.”

The investment is as low as $2,000 to $4,000 per title using union talent, but can go higher depending on disc features, Watkins said.

About 40 recent feature films have description tracks made for theatrical release, but they seldom end up on DVD.

“We've described more than 200 films for Turner Classic Movies,” she said. “Every time one is released on DVD, we get letters asking why [the studio] didn't include the description track.”

DVD menus also offer unique challenges.

Back when everyone had to get up and walk across the room to change channels on their TV sets, the rotary knobs that clicked from position to position provided tactile feedback that accommodated the visually impaired. Even with VHS, blind users could load a tape into a VCR and play a movie by memorizing a few buttons on the remote control.

But selecting a program or playing a DVD is a far more complex and interactive experience as users navigate through onscreen menus via one or more remote controls. Often, those interfaces are visual, with just music playing in the background. The same goes for digital set-top boxes, which rely more on a visual interface to select news, entertainment and other content using electronic program guides.

To address that problem, the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH has created the publication “A Developer's Guide to Creating Talking Menus for Set-top Boxes and DVDs.”

Among the issues explored in the publication are:

* How should the talking menu behave on startup?
* How should the user enable or disable the audio-navigation system?
What should the interface do to prevent a user from getting lost?
What kind of audio cue should the interface provide as the user moves from selection to selection?
* Is the menu system a grid?
* Is the menu system designed to deliver information or make choices to drive a process?

How-to sections for developers of set-top boxes and DVDs are included. The guide can be downloaded at http://ncam.wgbh.org/resources/talkingmenus/. The guidelines are the result of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

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