2004 Conference Proceedings

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Geoff Freed
Project Manager
CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
WGBH Educational Foundation
125 Western Ave.
Boston, MA 02134
617 300-4223
Email: geoff_freed@wgbh.org


According to a survey published in late 2003 by the Open eBook Forum (http://www.openebook.org), sales of electronic books, or e-books, are steadily increasing. Trade, textbook and periodical publishers alike are developing e-books that can be accessed, downloaded and displayed using browser plug-ins, stand-alone software and hardware devices. Many e-book formats offer features such as audio playback, built-in dictionaries, easy-to-read type, highlighting, note-taking, bookmarking, text searches and direct Internet connections. All these features offer considerable learning resources for users, sophisticated tools for educators and an entirely new development and distribution model for publishers, particularly in the educational market.

Most e-book titles can be read on desktop or laptop computers running Windows or the Macintosh OS, and an increasing number can be read on more portable devices such as the Palm Pilot, Tablet PC or Pocket PC. Students using e-books benefit from portability and a more engaging presentation of content, especially through the use of images and multimedia. E-books allow the user access to audio files for pronunciation guides, for example, or videos illustrating scientific concepts. However, very little of this material is, or will be, accessible to learners with sensory disabilities without a concerted effort to incorporate access enhancements into production plans, standards and technologies.

Launched in 2003, NCAM's Beyond the Text project

(http://ncam.wgbh.org/ebooks) is currently evaluating available e-book software and hardware for multimedia capability, as well as for general accessibility to users who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing. The goal of the project is to enable users with these disabilities to easily locate, activate and utilize accessible multimedia content within various e-book formats, and software and hardware devices. Activities in support of this goal include researching and producing demonstration models, developing recommended practices and contributing to specifications that support the creation of accessible images, audio and multimedia. The Beyond the Text project is made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (http://www.ed.gov/).

Building upon NCAM's ongoing research into Web-based multimedia accessibility, the Beyond the Text project will identify the needs of deaf and blind users in the design of user interface, navigation systems, and the presentation of audio, video and illustrations. NCAM will help developers learn to apply methods for improving e-book multimedia navigation, as well as how to create captions and audio descriptions for video and audio presentations.

Project activities include:

  1. analyzing barriers to identification, navigation, display and manipulation of captions and audio descriptions within various e-book formats and hardware or software devices.
  2. identifying a wide range of caption and audio-description solutions for images, audio and video.
  3. researching and evaluating alternate solutions for access to multimedia.
  4. publishing a set of recommended practices for authors interested in creating accessible e-book multimedia.

The Problem

Today, most blind or visually impaired people who use technology to access books rely on specially prepared audio tapes or CDs, although there is increasing support for the superior Digital Talking Book (DTB) format developed by the DAISY Consortium (http://www.daisy.org). Audiotape books, because they are strictly linear, do not allow the user to randomly access content, nor do they give the user any access to diagrams, illustrations or multimedia. While they may offer a more convenient format than tape, books on CD do not meet the needs of blind and visually impaired users the way DTBs can. Publishers are being encouraged to transfer audio books to the DTB format, which allows for easy random access and use of indices, footnotes and tables of contents. The DAISY Consortium actively supports the development of accessible multimedia in DTBs, but there are currently no DTB players available that support the playback of multimedia. And while some e-books are created followi! ng the Open eBook Publication Structure 1.2, a recommendation published by the Open eBook Forum (http://www.openebook.org), there is nothing specifying the inclusion of accessible multimedia in electronic publications. The situation may change in future versions of the recommendation, but for the time being accessible video and audio clips in e-books are almost non-existent.

This is not to say that the technology doesn't exist to support accessible e-book multimedia. For several years, it has been possible to supply captions and audio descriptions with Web- or CD-based movies. The same players that support these accessibility enhancements on the Web (the QuickTime Player, RealPlayer or Windows Media Player) are also used in many e-book players, especially on desktop or laptop computers. But many publishers and authors are simply unaware that they can take advantage of these features. Additionally, many hand-held e-book players have no support for multimedia of any kind beyond simple audio clips, and those are frequently played by proprietary software which offer no support for accessibility enhancements.


People with vision loss require descriptions of images and multimedia. Image descriptions can be easily supplied by textual equivalents via alt text or long descriptions, currently in use in HTML documents. Audio descriptions offer information about key visual elements in a multimedia presentation, such as body language, setting or action. They are interwoven with the regular program audio to avoid interfering with dialog or narration. These supplementary audio files can be delivered alongside the original content, as has been demonstrated in previous NCAM multimedia and rich media projects. See http://ncam.wgbh.org/richmedia for numerous examples. Multimedia developers can use NCAM's free software, MAGpie (http://ncam.wgbh.org/webaccess/magpie/), to create and synchronize audio descriptions with digital multimedia.

Users who are deaf or hard of hearing also face obstacles when it comes to multimedia. Any audio content included with e-books (or any electronic media) is unavailable to this population unless it is captioned. Captions display audio as text on the screen and include non-speech information, such as sound effects, as well as dialog and narration. Captions also give users access to audio prompts or alerts. Captions, like audio descriptions, can be created and synchronized using NCAM's MAGpie software.

Some e-book readers already can play multimedia elements. They include, but are not limited to, the Adobe Reader 6 (http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readermain.html), Microsoft Reader 2.0 (http://www.microsoft.com/reader/), and eMonocle (http://ionsystems.com/emonocle). See http://ncam.wgbh.org/ebooks for a complete listing of various software and hardware e-book readers. Some, like Reader 2.0, do not allow authors to embed multimedia directly within the e-book and instead rely on the Internet to play multimedia. Others, such as Acrobat Reader 6 and eMonocle, allow embedded multimedia which is played with industry-standard players such as those made by Apple or RealNetworks, or proprietary software. Either approach allows for the inclusion of accessible multimedia, although the embedded method is the most convenient of the two. NCAM has created prototypes of accessible multimedia in e-books; see http://ncam.wgbh.org/ebooks for examples.

Despite the fact that some e-book players allow for the inclusion of multimedia (accessible or otherwise), the problem remains that no e-book format or player is completely accessible as a whole to disabled users, especially blind or visually impaired users who rely on screen readers. Screen readers give users access to content by voicing text aloud. They can interpret non-text elements, such as images, or complicated elements, such as data tables, forms and frames, provided the author has used proper markup when creating the materials, be they Web pages or e-books. Even if e-books contain accessible multimedia, blind users may not even be able to locate this content if they can't read the book with a screen reader.

Some e-book devices have worked around this problem by using text-to-speech output. Microsoft Reader 2.0 and Adobe Reader 6 are two such e-book readers that have a speech component. In addition to voicing visible text, both also identify and read textual equivalents of images in the form of alt text. However, speech output does not allow blind users to manipulate the content-- that is, users can't activate hyperlinks, control multimedia players or move about randomly within data tables the way they can when using a screen reader. Improvements are being developed and deployed-- for example, Adobe Reader 6 allows functional access to screen readers. When reading a properly marked-up PDF e-book, screen-reader users can navigate text, links, images and tables with few problems. The incorporation of accessibility tags is not necessarily the default authoring mode of Adobe's PDF format, however, so e-book authors must always be sure to activate and verify certain features in ! order to create accessible materials.

The Beyond the Text project hopes to have an impact on the development and implementation of accessibility solutions within all e-books and DTBs. At the end of the project period, a set of guidelines will be published illustrating methods for adding accessibility enhancements to e-book and DTB multimedia, providing developers, publishers, industry organizations and standards groups with resources to support the implementation of accessible multimedia within electronic texts. Recommended practices and demonstration models are available at http://ncam.wgbh.org/ebooks; new examples will be uploaded as the project progresses.

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