Audio Description using the Web Speech API

When HTML5 was published, it introduced the <video> and <audio> elements, as well as the <track> element. The latter provides a standard means of synchronizing text with media for a variety of purposes. The HTML5 spec specifically defines five kinds of track: captions, subtitles, chapters, metadata, and descriptions. The latter is particularly interesting, and is the topic of this post.

Description, historically known as "audio description" or various other terms, is a supplemental narration track designed for people who are unable to see the video. It describes content that is presented visually, and is needed if that content is not otherwise accessible via the program audio. Historically we've outsourced description to professionals, but with prices starting at $15 per video minute, we've never gotten the kind of participation we need if video everywhere is going to be fully accessible.

With HTML5, description can now be written in any text editor. All five finds of tracks, including description, are written in the same file format: WebVTT, which is essentially a time-stamped text file. Imagine that you have a video that beings with a short interview with someone notable, say the president of your university. The president's name and affiliation appears visually in an on-screen graphic but they're never specifically identified in the program audio, so a non-visual person has no idea who's speaking and whether to take them seriously. This is a really simple use case, but common among videos I see in higher education: The video can easily be made accessible by creating a WebVTT file that includes the speaker's name and affiliation, with start and end times indicating when this text should be spoken. There's a bit of thought that must go into timing, as you want to avoid colliding with other important audio, but otherwise it's a really simple task. The result would be a file that looks something like this:


00:00:05.000 --> 00:00:08.000
Ana Mari Cauce, President,
University of Washington

Save that as a VTT file. Done. Thirty seconds and your video has description.

With text-based description, it's easy to edit the content or the timing (not true if the description narration is mixed into the video). Plus computers can read it themselves; we don't need to hire professional voice actors to do that. This makes description affordable, easy to do for most of the videos we're using in academia, and increases the likelihood that video owners will actually do it.

But how can text-based description be delivered to users?

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Only one Terrill Thompson

Ok, there are actually two Terrill Thompsons, but that's another story.

This particular Terrill (me) has a short bio that reads "Terrill Thompson is technology accessibility specialist with the University of Washington, web developer, musician, writer, outdoor adventurer, and seeker of truth."

These are a lot of things that I Am. Historically I've kept some of them separate. For example, this blog primarily has focused on web accessibility, whereas I've maintained a separate blog dedicated to my music.

I've always felt some resistance though to compartmentalizing my various interests. Terrill Thompson the technology accessibility specialist, Terrill Thompson the musician, Terrill Thompson the writer, etc. are all the same Terrill Thompson.

Therefore, today I'm combining all of my interests into a single blog/website. About halfway down the right sidebar you'll now find a heading "Categories", which enables you to hone in on posts that pertain either to accessibility (A11y), music, or life, depending on your interests. Maybe there will be additional categories someday.

All the old stuff is still here: There are posts dating back to 2008. It should be easy to find stuff via the main navigation menu, sidebar, or search feature.

Having one blog will be easier to maintain, so I'm more likely to keep up with bug fixes,  adding new features, and maybe even posting new content. In fact, I think I may post a new entry today, which will make two in one day. I think that's the first time that's happened in my  eleven years of blogging!

Feeling inspired.

Optimizing my Home Office

I work in a variety of places. I share an office with Doug at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington. I share an office with David, Carly, Stephanie, and Nigel at Western Washington University in Bellingham, with Max a short shout away. I share an office with anyone else who happens to be working at Woods Coffee on any particular day. But sometimes I just want to be alone, working in a quiet place where I can focus on the tasks at hand without distraction. Hands down, the best place to do the latter is my home office. All this week, I've had no choice but to work every day in my home office as outside my front door, I've been knee-deep in snow.

Outdoor furniture buried under mountains of snow, prayer flags and snow-covered trees in the background 14 inches of snow piled high on Terrill's deck

After a week of being snowed in, I'm still loving it, partly because I'm a huge fan of snow; but also because I recently upgraded my home office so it's extremely comfortable and helps me to achieve maximum work efficiency. Some of my equipment travels with me from office to office, but a few things remain at home. So when I arrive back home in my safe, warm den I can plug in my computers and continue to be productive.

Because I'm here, and because I love it, I thought I would share a bit about my setup. First, I'll describe some of the problems I was experiencing before upgrading.

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The Truth about Nepal, and Why Kaiser Permanente Sucks

This is another one of those end-of-year blog posts. As I reflect back on 2018 though, it certainly has been an extraordinary year.

I wrote this a few days ago and have been hesitant to post it. If anyone who reads this is interested in traveling to Nepal, I don't want to discourage that. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and is populated by fascinating, diverse, kind, and beautiful people, many of whom desperately depend on tourism for their livelihood. If you're interested, I encourage you to go! However, I feel like I have an obligation to tell my story. Perhaps it will help would-be travelers to go with more realistic expectations than I had, and to be more fully prepared than I was for the challenges they may face.

The Truth About Nepal

On September 4, the New York Times published an exposé titled Near Everest’s Slopes, a Helicopter Rescue Fraud Preys on Trekkers. The article described rampant fraud in Nepal involving trekking guides, helicopter rescue services, and hospitals. I'm not surprised by this news, as I experienced hints of it myself while traveling in Nepal this year. However, my experience differed from those of others whose stories were featured in the article.

I was there in April, hiking among the world's tallest mountains. I was traveling solo on a 19-day adventure with Himalayan Glacier. Ultimately the goal was to climb Imja Tse (Island Peak), a glacier climb to 20,305 feet and a full-on view of the massive southern wall of Lhotse. When I arrived at Himalayan Glacier's office in Kathmandu, I was introduced to Bob and Beth, two other Americans who were also traveling solo with the same guide service, and with itineraries similar to mine. We each had our own guide and porter, and would travel separately, though we would frequently encounter each other on the trail. Ultimately Bob and I were to meet up at Island Peak base camp and climb Island Peak together.

Although you might think otherwise as you read the rest of this blog post, my experience in Nepal was largely positive. Step by step I absorbed the amazing beauty of the Khumbu Valley, surrounded by towering white peaks — Kusum Khangkaru, Kongde, Thamserku, Kangtega, Ama Dablam, Nuptse. We strolled through quaint mountain villages where children ran up to greet my ever-smiling Sherpa guide with a hardy hug. Sherpas in general were — as expected — always laughing and smiling and seemed to be enjoying their lives, despite having very little material wealth.

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Accessibility of College Radio Stations

This post comes live from the National Student Electronic Media Convention, the annual fall convention of College Broadcasters, Inc (CBI). It's in Seattle this year, and I was invited to present on web/media accessibility along with folks from WKNC, North Carolina State University's student-run radio station. This is a very cool coincidence, since my co-presenters weren't even aware that I was once employed by NC State, and was a regular listener to WKNC in those days.

In fact, I'm a huge fan and supporter of college radio! Two of the six stations on my car radio dial are KEXP (UW) and KUGS (WWU), and before moving to Washington I was a regular listener of WKNC (as I mentioned) and before that, KJHK, "The Sound Alternative" in Lawrence, Kansas. Also, as an independent musician, the only radio stations that have ever given my music air time are college stations.

To prepare for my presentation, I thought I would do a quick informal assessment of the state of accessibility on college radio station websites. Hence, this blog post.

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