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BBC subtitling spreads

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 26 Nov 07, 10:36 AM

More news on the subtitles front, you lucky lucky people. In addition to the programmes available via the iPlayer, which is the BBC’s seven-day catch-up service, subtitled content is also being made available on some of the various BBC platforms.

BBC Wales is running a campaign called,Capture Wales. This is a “digital storytelling” project, and members of the public can submit short videos about matters important to them. There are a wide variety of interesting stories, from anecdotes about a father’s fifteen minutes of fame, to Lyndon Wray’s recollections of the natural beauty of North Wales.

All of these short films carry subtitles, and many also have transcripts. Whether you are Welsh or not, so long as you are interested in people, then a lot of these short clips are worth dipping into.

It is a similar story on the Film Network website, where up and coming filmmakers showcase their short films. These include animation, comedy, drama and more experimental films, and there is plenty to interest everyone. Well worth checking out is God & Dave, a short film about relationships, traffic jams, and whales. No, really.

Both of these websites also provide plenty of help in setting up your media player to show subtitles, and you can also provide feedback on them if you want to help the service even better.

Signs of Life is well worth checking out as well. This is an interactive online occult thriller with games threaded throughout the story.

It has everything that the sullen, moody, emo listening teenager could want. There’s romance, creepy twins, skulls, tarot, astrology and, er, a rather sinister stalker. Games range from simple exercises like uncovering energy lines in the ground, to psychometric-like tests to reveal your personality.

And to think, when I was a kid, interactive meant making stuff along with Blue Peter. Kids today don’t know they’re born, etc etc.

It is subtitled as well, which is pretty cool. We’ve looked at a few interactive online experiences before, like HBO’s Voyeur (why are they all so dark?) and bemoaned the lack of inclusivity. So it is good to see something like Signs of Life that is making the effort.

If I have one criticism of the subtitles, it would be that in the first episode, sometimes a different colour is used to show different speakers, and sometimes that wasn’t the case. By the second episode, though, that issue appears to have been resolved.

I would also like to see a way to skip the games. Now I know that sounds counter-intuitive when it comes to inter-activity, but Signs of Life is interesting enough for people to want to watch it without them. And if, for example, you can’t see the dots to join them up in order to progress to the second half of the first episode, well then, you’re a bit stuffed.

But lets not get too critical here. Signs of Life is the BBC’s first major interactive experiment of this nature, and as grand as it is, they are bound to learn from it for similar future projects. And I’ll look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Recent entries

Microsoft develop DAISY plugin

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 20 Nov 07, 04:19 PM

Here’s some great news from Microsoft for visually impaired people. In early 2008, they will be releasing a free plugin to convert Word documents to DAISY format.

What makes this so exciting? Well, according to the RNIB, only 5% of all materials available to sighted users are also provided in an alternative accessible format.

And whilst documents can be changed into other audio formats easily enough, the resulting file tends to lack structure, like headings. Large, complicated documents can end up being as easy to follow as drunken, freeform jazz. It can be hard enough work wading through a company’s financial reports without this additional complication.

DAISY format documents make things much easier, as the headings, page numbers and references can all be identified by a suitable player. With a proper structure, it suddenly becomes possible to skip chapters and move backwards and forwards through a document.

This is great news, and full credit goes to Microsoft for both developing the plugin and making it free. The big issue will be making people aware that it exists. Hopefully in future releases of Word, the DAISY converter will be installed as standard. Given the popularity of Word, that small step could have a greater impact on making more documents accessible than almost any other measure that could be taken.

iPlayer round-up - audio description trial coming soon

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 1 Nov 07, 01:29 PM

More news on the BBC’s iPlayer front. If you don’t know by now – where have you been? – then the iPlayer is the website and media player you’ll need to take advantage of their seven day catch up service.

Firstly, the hot-off-the-press news concerns audio description for TV programmes. Audio description is an extra narrative voice added to a show to help explain on-screen action for visually impaired viewers. There has been plenty of demand for audio described content, and the good news is that a trial will be launched soon - maybe even this year.

This trial won’t initially take place in the iPlayer. Selected programmes will be audio described and delivered directly from the BBC website. Users will be invited to give feedback on the trial, so there is a good opportunity to get involved and help create the audio description service that you want. Once the testing phase is completed, then audio described content will begin to be integrated into the iPlayer.

Elsewhere, there is news of one or two gremlins in the system that the BBC Future Media and Technology Accessibility Team are feverishly trying to resolve.

There is an issue with displaying subtitles on the “stand alone” version of media players. As we’ve noted before, they work fine on the small screen, and, if your player is correctly set-up (see this iPlayer FAQ if you need help with this) it works fine on the “full screen” version as well. Our advice then is simple – avoid the “stand alone” media player for the time being.

The final glitch that the team are working on is that some programmes are being incorrectly marked as having subtitles when in fact the show doesn’t have them. Now that is potentially annoying. One way around it is to check in the Download Manager during the download process. If a programme does indeed have subtitles, then it will be confirmed here. The issue stems from a problem with the meta data – or information about programmes to you and me - and The Future Media and Technology Accessibility Team are confident of clearing this issue up soon.

Byte Size interview No 12: Anne Begg MP

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 29 Oct 07, 09:04 PM

Anne Begg has been the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South since 1997, becoming the first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to the House of Commons. She was born with the genetic condition Gauchers Disease. In addition to her duties in the House, including working as the Chair of the All Party Group on Equalities, she is also Patron of the National Federation of Shopmobility, the Scottish Motor Neurone Disease Society and President of the Blue Badge Network. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, the cinema and the theatre.


Q: What are your favourite websites?

I’ve recently discovered the joys of shopping online. Getting heavy loads of groceries from the supermarkets has been brilliant. I sometimes look up specific news stories on the BBC, but I actually prefer to read a newspaper.

Q: What are your least favourite websites?

Holiday comparison websites. I often find they can be a bit misleading about disabled access. Sometimes the websites say the hotel is wheelchair friendly, and then when you actually phone the hotel, you find out that, for example, there are steps up to the lift or something.

Q: What was the last thing you bought online?

I recently bought a table and chairs online.

Q: What is the most adventurous thing you’ve done online recently?

I booked tickets with Eurostar. They’ve got some great deals at the moment for disabled passengers and their travelling companions.

Q: If the web were taken away from me today…

I would get a lot more done! It isn’t that the web is a problem, but email is the bane of my life. It takes ages to go through them all, and because it is an instant medium, everyone expects an instant response. I much prefer face-to-face communication and still try to send letters rather than email to my constituents.

Q: Do you read any blogs?

I tend to avoid them mainly because the comments so often descend into offensive arguments. I only have so much time, and I would rather read the newspapers.

Q: Do you have a favourite gadget?

I have all the usual gadgets, like a mobile phone and so on, but my favourite thing is my wheelchair carrier for the car, which automatically folds away my wheelchair for me. It makes me independent.

iPlayer: Some common questions answered

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 22 Oct 07, 09:45 PM

The iPlayer, which is the BBC’s website and media player for it’s 7-day catch-up service, has been available for testing over the last few months, and from the comments on this blog, it sure seems like many of you have been putting it through its paces.

It hasn’t been plain sailing for everyone, so I thought I would answer some of the common questions about using the iPlayer.

How do I install the iPlayer?

It is all change on the iPlayer home page. No longer is there a link to install the iPlayer, as such. All you have to do is register, and try to download a programme. You will then be prompted to install the iPlayer library. Follow the instructions to do that, and you’ll be up and running in no time.

How do I switch off signing?

The short answer is that you can’t right now. To make programmes as inclusive as possible, signed content is made available for download where available. When the iPlayer is formally launched, then the programmes will be provided in different formats, including ones with and without signing.

Where are the audio described programmes?

They are coming! The short answer is that the process of adding audio description to content is still in development. Keep an eye out for audio described shows appearing on the iPlayer in the months ahead.

What’s with kservice.exe?

A lot of people have complained that kservice, which is the program that drives the iPlayer, hogs bandwidth. That’s a problem beyond the scope of this blog, but here’s how I manage it. Most firewalls can be configured so that individual programs must request access to the internet. If it isn’t convenient, don’t let it run. You’ll need to check how to do that with whatever firewall you have installed.


If you have other questions not covered here, feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to address them. If you cannot wait, or it isn’t an accessibility issue, then don’t forget about the extensive help on the iPlayer website.

Where to next for record labels?

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 19 Oct 07, 11:00 AM

Radiohead have made their latest album, In Rainbows, available for download, and fans are invited to pay what they like for it. Days later, Nine Inch Nails announced they were leaving their record company, and Madonna has dumped her label in favour of a concert promoter.

Has this left record label fat cats crying into their skinny lattes? Whilst selling CDs is still a multi-billion dollar industry, volumes are continuing to fall and downloads aren’t taking up all the slack. Something is happening and the industry needs to react. But in what direction will that be?

If the Radiohead experiment is to be the new model for the industry, then acts will need to sharpen up the way they deliver content to fans. On the Access-UK list, Vanjar gives a full description of the difficulties encountered in trying to download the album after encountering confusing links, a difficult order form and the almost inevitable visual verification image that screen reader software cannot pick up. All of which lead to Vanjar giving the website a, “thumbs down when it comes to accessibility of their online store.”

You know, it still surprises me that people are desperate to spend their money, but that some web developers manage to make it impossible to do so.

A website that has been encouraging users to pay what they like for new music is Magnatune. Magnatune is part record label, part music download website. They sign artists and make their albums available to listen to or download. Consumers get to pay what they want for an album. The recommended price is US $8, but you can pay as little as $5 or as much as $18. The money is split with the band on 50-50 basis.

Magnatune isn’t going to pass a formal accessibility audit, but it is usable. You can navigate around it, and purchasing music involves completing a fairly simple order form. And get this – it even lets you listen to music on your preferred media player, if the Flash player doesn’t work.

It is a model that can work for everyone. Artists prosper by receiving more royalties than with a traditional record label. Consumers get to pay what an album is worth to them.

Could it be that this is how we’ll be buying all our music in the future?

Techrunch readers off target

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 16 Oct 07, 03:29 PM

A recent court ruling in California has great implications for website accessibility in the state, and perhaps beyond. The attitudes of some US technologists suggest that the ruling came not a moment too soon.

A US District judge in California had found that the e-commerce website of Target, a major chain of department stores, did not provide sufficient accessibility to all user groups, and she ruled that further legal proceedings could go ahead. This has implications for other companies with websites based in California, and perhaps beyond that state. If you are interested in reading more about the case, then Out-Law has a fuller discussion on what it all means.

Techcrunch, a hugely popular technology blog, covered the story in sober fashion, but some of the reactions from readers of the blog have been rather alarming.

There are comments from users displaying great ignorance and bordering on offensive – “what’s next, driver licenses for the blind?” There are even some comments that cross that border, and are too offensive to repeat here.

Most of the more reasoned objections revolve around time and money. These can be countered with well-worn arguments – building an accessible website is no more expensive than an inaccessible one, and an inclusive website reaches a bigger audience and should therefore make more money in the long run.

There is, however, one cultural objection that we don’t often see here in the UK. This is to do with a free market economy. All the answers sums up the argument by saying that, “if Target doesn’t make its website accessible, then Target has made a business decision that it doesn’t care about business from the blind. And that’s their right.”

There is a logic to this, and I can see the argument. But I don’t subscribe to it. I think it is clear that a free market cannot be relied upon to accept its responsibilities, otherwise there would be far more accessible websites around.

What makes this all so noteworthy is that the debate can be found on Techcrunch. It isn’t just some strange outpost in an unfrequented part of the net. Comments are from people interested in, and in some cases, building the cutting edge websites of the internet.

There are accessibility advocates on the thread, so it isn’t a situation without hope. But some of the views expressed by those people who are shaping the web are not greatly encouraging either.

Some of these people need to improve their awareness of both the issues, and solutions. And if it takes legislation to compel them to do it, then so be it.

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