New technology brings tennis to life for blind fans

For Kala Petronijevic, an 11-year-old blind tennis player and superfan in Australia, watching tennis has never been easy. “My father usually has to comment for me, and he sometimes finds it tiring because I can’t see who is serving, or the ball or the points.”

This is a problem facing 43 million people with blindness and 295 million people with moderate to severe visual impairment. So Tim Devine, Executive Director at AKQA, along with Monash University and Tennis Australia, invented what is now known as Action Audio.

Action Audio is now part of the Australian Open Radio, which is available online for games played on center court. With Action Audio, listeners and fans can experience tennis like never before, using bells and whistles to give visually impaired people an idea of ​​where the ball is going and how close it is to being out.

Using spatial audio developed by Dolby Atmos in collaboration with Apple, fans can experience the bells and beeps separately from the right ear to the left ear. The closer the ball is to the perimeter of the playing field, the more blips you will hear. When the ball is hit and bounces across the field, you will hear a series of bells. A high pitch indicates a forehand, a low pitch indicates a backhand. Commentary is also available to relay all the information in addition to the beeps and horns.

Tim Devine explained why he developed the innovative piece of technology. “If a visually impaired person experiences tennis, it was through beeping when the tennis ball hits the ground and on the racket, and possibly the net, and a few grunts, and that’s basically it, there was a little bit of information in this radio, which was good is, but it takes the agency away from the people to make their own decisions and judgments about what is happening.”

hawk eye

Mr Devine admits that tennis is one of the better sports to test the ActionAudio audio beds on, as tennis has already relied on technology such as Hawkeye, which measures how fast a serve is and various other stats collected during a game. Add to this the silence of the crowd when there is action, followed by the roar after a dramatic ending.

The actual tech specs to make an entire system were easier than you might think, according to Devine, “because it’s pretty small in size and by that I mean there’s just a few people and one ball and you know, some lines.” , and a net, and that’s about it. And so it’s followed very closely as well. So for years, probably decades, I’d say there’s been a technological invention, and the only provider that is Hawkeye, and they can track where the ball is, the players are in high resolution 3D.

“We then took that information and turned it into sounds, abstract sounds that amplify the existing audio experience. So we’re trying to make it sound like you would in an augmented reality. And in a visual sense that is augmented reality in an audio set. So it’s kind of trying to bring it into the sound space in a convincing way. So it just feels normal and part of it. So there’s a lot of ways we’ve done that by using different reverbs and sounds to make the sounds feel like they happened in that space, so it feels really natural.”

What helps is how accessible the technology is these days. Devine explained how the datafication of sports could be beneficial in addition to technological advancements in AirPods and Apple Music in making sports more accessible: “There’s the spatial audio aspect of things powered by VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality).” , but also increasingly in music with Apple.

“They have spatial audio and that Dolby Atmos experience with the AirPods. That’s becoming more of a thing, which is great because it really gives you more perspective. In that sense, you can really position things.

“We’re really excited about this project because it’s become something that can track the quantification of sports, or the kind of datafication of sports and the acceleration of the kind of audio 3D experiences. So in that sense we’re really excited because if the job is to work with the blind and visually impaired, you have to ask them what’s interesting about sport and how we get that experience.”

Devine admits all of his experience in technology and all of his innovations, including a project with Microsoft called sense kit – a way to explore the concept of sensory substitution, which is to feel vibrations on the skin, and then ultimately understand what actually represent them – this is an experience he will remember for a long time.


He said: “It was one of the most in-depth projects I’ve worked on, because the feedback was so emotional, and there were some really cool things, like, I was asked why you’re doing this, and it’s because we’re actively doing this.” did, we actively invested in doing this proactively because we really thought there was some value in this.

“We came up with a lot of design principles, one of which was that sport is social. It’s hard to be social if you’re not able to make your own assessment of the game. It’s hard to be social when you’re visually impaired, you have to sit really close to the screen, away from anyone sitting on the couch, and you’re blocking the view, and the conversation isn’t that easy.

“That way, people relied on others to explain what was going on. So in that sense it evens out the experience for everyone. And so there has been a tremendous response from that perspective, from the social and inclusive perspective.”

Tim has continuously innovated to help society get better and do better, and while Tennis Australia has been an incredible partner, he hopes other sports organizations will come on board. Not only sports organizations are important, but broadcasters and technology companies can also use this small adjustment to make a huge impact.

For visually impaired fans like Kala, the impact is huge. “With Action Audio I don’t know why, but suddenly I see the ball. I can actually hear everything, and I can really see the ball. I don’t have to ask my dad, ‘hey can you comment, I can’t see where the ball is going.’”

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