Future Reflections Convention Report 2012
by Joshua A. Miele
Introduction by Dr. Marc Maurer: Here to make our next presentation is the director of the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Research and Development Center in San Francisco, California. He is an inventor of the Descriptive Video Exchange, which is an idea he'll be discussing in a moment. It's a revolutionary concept that is poised to transform the way we create and distribute descriptive video. Here for this presentation is Dr. Joshua Miele.
I am incredibly honored to be here and to speak to you today. As Dr. Maurer explained, I work at the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Development Center in San Francisco. The Department of Education is funding the research center. While we sometimes have comments about the department and try to steer it in the right direction, this is a very cool thing that it is doing. The Department of Education is funding this incredibly important research, and I will tell you why.
When I say "video description," many of you may think back to the turn of this century when the Federation began to take an interest in this area. The FCC had created rules that did not include some important provisions, and the Federation found this unacceptable. The provisions were about access to the crawlers on the bottom of the TV screen, giving text-based information related to health and safety matters. Nonvisual access to that information was not in the provisions that were put into place in 2000. The NFB strenuously made it clear that this type of information access was critical and nonnegotiable. The NFB also felt that the FCC's provisions did not go far enough in providing access to broadcast television. The NFB made it very clear in those early resolutions that video description is useful and a powerful medium for getting access to television and other video information.
I would like to let you know, if you don't know already, that the Twenty-first Century Communications and Accessibility Act, which was signed into law in 2010, puts those provisions into place. It also makes requirements regarding video description on broadcast network television. These are similar in many ways to the requirements that were in place before.
My organization, our center, does not really deal with broadcast television. Video description is an important medium. We are looking into the future, where the vast majority of video will not be consumed via broadcast media. It will be consumed over the Internet. The time is not far away. It's really important for us to recognize that video is an increasingly crucial part of our mass culture, our education, our employment, and our entertainment. The amount of video distributed via the Internet is going to increase to the point where broadcast television will be a vanishingly small portion of the market.
We are looking at a coming day very soon when electronic textbooks will contain embedded video. We're looking ahead to a day when most instructional materials will be provided via YouTube or other video-based informational media. These media present serious challenges to our ability to access the things we want and need. The research center that I run is dealing with those challenges. I'm happy to tell you that we have a number of technological and social approaches to address the needs of the blind students of the future.
I'm going to tell you about a couple of technologies and a couple of programs that we're currently running. The first one, the Descriptive Video Exchange that's in the title of my talk, is a tool we have developed at Smith-Kettlewell that gives anybody, anywhere, the ability to describe anything, so that anybody, anywhere else, can hear the description. This technology uses a web-based server to store and maintain all of the descriptions associated with videos available on the web, on DVD, or from streamed sources such as Netflix. The server does not store the videos. The server only stores the descriptions, along with the identification and timing information. The server works with a video player that plays whatever video you want to watch, along with the stored descriptions.
This system gets around a couple of interesting problems. For example, many videos simply are not described. There is no way to get a described version because it doesn't exist. That's one problem. With this system, anybody anywhere can volunteer to describe that video from their own home and upload the information. Then you, somewhere else, can take advantage of that description and play it back in synchronization with the video that you want to watch. [Applause]
This system does a sort of end run around a number of the issues related to modifying and distributing copyrighted materials. In today's model for video description, it's necessary to record a described version of a film or TV show and redistribute that version. To do that, it's necessary to get permissions. All sorts of legal and financial issues are involved. Our system does not modify or redistribute anybody's copyrighted material. It simply plays the descriptions along with the material from a legitimate source. That means it becomes much simpler to create descriptions.
When I was a kid, when my family went to museums, my mom would say, "Duck under this rope. The statue is right in front of you. I'll tell you if the guard is coming." [Laughter and applause] I think my mom planted a deeply subversive strain in my soul. Sometimes, rather than asking for access to the material that you need, you simply have to take that access. [Applause] A number of people say that what we're doing is legal; a number of other people say it might be legal. We'll find out. Whether or not it is legal, it should be. We are interested in moving the technology forward in a proactive way so that when the time comes, we are ready.
What if you don't have that special video player that knows how to get access to the Descriptive Video Exchange? What if you're at a movie theater, and they don't have descriptive equipment installed? What if you're at a school assembly, and they show a movie that no one thought a blind student would ever need access to? We are developing tools that will use Smartphones and a technology very similar to Shazam. You will be able to listen to the movie that's being played in the room where you are, go to the server, and check to see if description is available. If there is a description, your cell phone can play it for you, synchronized with the video. There can be multiple descriptions using this system. There can be multiple languages. There is an enormous number of possibilities presented by this technology. Fundamentally, we are trying to put tools into the hands of the people who consume the material, rather than in the hands of the people who produce the material. [Applause]
What about quality, you might ask. What ensures that the descriptions recorded on this system are any good? Sites such as Wikipedia have put in place a number of systems to ensure quality. These include the ability to edit, the ability to rate things high or low, and the ability to have trusted describers review other people's descriptions and make sure that quality is maintained.
We want to make certain that the description industry is not left behind. Professionals can use our platform as well. Many of them really look forward to doing so. It would cut costs for them and make it much more convenient for them to get their products out to the market, so the professionals are in this loop.
Up to now, the professional description industry has not had much direct input from blind professionals during the production phase of description. Blind people trained in the needs of blind consumers can give valuable input about how scripts should be written, how they should be recorded, what sort of information should be provided, and when it should be inserted. One of the projects that the center is doing, in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind, is called the Professional Development Workshop for Description Quality Control Specialists. In May of this year a group of nine blind professionals spent a week at the Jernigan Institute. They trained with some of the best-equipped people in the field on how to create, edit, and ensure quality for description. We are making sure that blind professionals will be involved in this industry from the ground up. When jobs open up and people need to be hired, there will be blind professionals available. [Applause]
We're looking forward to next year's Youth Slam, which includes a media track. Every year the students create a video about Youth Slam itself. In 2013 blind professional describers will be available to teach the students how to create their own described video.
Going into the future, there are a number of things that we need to think about. Video description is no longer a luxury. Video description is now a necessity for access to instructional materials. We must be proactive about the technology, about making sure that there are people prepared to create the descriptions of the future using the technologies we're developing. We need to be proactive in making sure that policy and legislation are ready for us. We need to make sure that the blind students of the future are not locked out of video as they once were locked out of access to textbooks.
I want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for allowing me to speak today about the Description Video Research and Development Center, and I want to thank the NFB for being a partner with us in launching these exciting programs. I was assured that you would be a friendly audience, and you definitely have been. Thank you very much!