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For many partially sighted sports fans, following the speed and actions of a live game is almost impossible. The Drum finds out from Tennis Australia how it is making tennis and other sports more accessible for these fans.

Tennis Australia recently launched Action Audio, an online audio stream designed to make the Australian Open 2021 broadcasts more accessible for 285 million people who are registered blind or as having low vision (BLV people).

For these fans who love sports, the experience of broadcast sport is severely compromised as sports coverage on television relies heavily on visuals, while radio commentary is often too slow to give fans a true sense of the live-action.

The organization hopes this audio stream will allow BLV people who love tennis to stay connected to the tennis experience throughout the entire match and follow it in real-time.

Machar Reid, the head of innovation at Tennis Australia explains the thirst for broadcast innovation and the drive to improve the live experience of BLV fans saw the organization worked with creative agency AQKA and Monash University to create Action Audio.

Tim Devine, the executive creative director at AKQA says the agency was obsessed with Dave Eagleman’s ideas around sensory substitution, which is basically creating new senses through other senses, i.e. turn your skin (sense of touch) into an ear.

“We had the idea of sonnifying electronic line calling technology used in tennis to effectively use your ears as eyes. This is something that we know BLV people are great at but in tennis, there is little information for them to do it,” explains Devine.

“The ball doesn’t make a sound as it moves through the air. And every shot and bounce effectively sounds the same. So, it was an easy space to augment.”

The agency received help from Dr Cagatay Goncu, a research fellow in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University, whose research is about investigating new methods for making information accessible to everyone.

Dr Goncu, who used to work at Tennis Australia before joining Monash, wants to make sports media broadcasting accessible to BLV sports fans with graphical and multimedia content.

“Sound design and experimenting with different combinations. We created something that is well suited to be integrated into existing broadcasting media. The technology that we use allows us to extend our reach to other sports,” he explains.

AQKA tested and explored the idea with BLV tennis fans for the last six months and found this is a confluence of two very established technologies like binaural/3D Audio through VR/AR and electronic line calling technologies.

It turned spatial data from the Australian Open’s real-time ball monitoring technology into 3D sound. The system emphasizes ball speed and trajectory, proximity to line and shot type, and augments critical moments to allow blind and low vision audiences to follow the game without seeing the ball.

“We want this in every major tennis tournament moving forward and we also want to work with BLV sports fans to understand what other sports experiences would benefit from such an approach,” says Devine.

On top of Action Audio, Tennis Australia has also introduced new measures at the Australian Open to make tennis more inclusive for BLV people.

This includes providing accessible seating options that are closer to the court for BLV people and options to select aisle seats with easy access.

“We want to ensure activations around the arena are accessible and that our AO App and websites are accessible to those using screen readers including partner websites such as Ticketmaster,” explains Reid.

“In the future, we will provide Beacon technology (small, wireless transmitters that use low-energy Bluetooth technology to send signals to other smart devices nearby) around the arena and continue to provide learning opportunities for our workforce to understand how best to support BLV people.”