Research Update: Audio Description Technology

            Two weeks ago, I looked at the feasibility of open captioning and the different ways to provide the service and save money. Today let’s take a closer look at another form of assistive technology: audio description services.

An audio-described performance is a theatrical performance during which a trained describer explains what is happening on stage during pauses in the dialogue. Typically, the describer points out visual elements of the stage, costumes, and the movement of the actors and dancers. Audio-described performances better serve the blind community, allowing for an awareness of the movements and actions on stage.

To provide audio description services, organizations must have access to assistive listening devices (ALDs). ALDs consist of a microphone patched directly into the sound board/mixer of the theater and a headset worn by the patron. The trained describer patches into the sound board/mixer and relays the description to the patrons. There are four types of ALDs that can be used:

·      A hardwire system is a closed system in which sound can only travel within the cables. This system works similarly to a headset plugged directly into an iPhone jack. The sound can only travel within the wires, which means there is a mess of cables.

·      An induction loop system broadcasts electromagnetic current within an area designated by cable antenna. This eliminates all hardwire elements, but limits the area in which the ALDs can be utilized. Seats must be reserved in one designated location (probably closer to the sound booth) for the service to work. Depending on the number of participants, providing adequate seating could pose a challenge.

·      An FM system is just like a small radio station with pre-set frequencies. This is typically one of the more convenient options, as it can work anywhere in the theatre. Also, the system has the ability to use different stations for different offerings. For example, one station can have audio description, while another station amplifies the sound for patrons who suffer hearing loss.

·      The infrared (IR) system has a receiver placed in line with the emitter and sound is then transmitted through infrared waves. In the Pittsburgh arts community, this system is the most commonly used. The emitter is situated within the headphones operated by the patron, and the headphones must be worn a specific direction so the emitter can find the receiver.

Of these four options, infrared and  FM systems offer ease of installation and flexibility in seating. For many venues, the sound board/mixer already has capabilities to utilize the FM and infrared ALDs. These two systems can also deliver multiple services at one time, with one channel amplifying the sound of the performance for persons with hearing loss, and another channel providing audio-description services for those with visual impairment.

            Russell Gentner, President of Listen Technologies, provides a helpful comparison of loop, IR, and FM technologies on the Listen Technologies blog. He argues that IR and FM systems offer distinct advantages, including price.  An FM system typically costs under $5,000 to install, while an IR system can cost around $10,000. Because an induction loop system has to be strategically installed throughout a venue to ensure complete coverage, the additional costs of installation typically increase the overall cost and time, making it a more expensive choice.

            For arts organizations not yet able to make the move to installing their own ALDs, rental is another option. Because most soundboards can easily accommodate these ALDs, the equipment can be rented and installed for one-time use. The Described and Captioned Media Program, which works to provide equal access to communication and learning through described and captioned educational media, publishes an extensive list of all description services offered throughout the United States on its website, For more information about audio description technology, listen here to an interview with Diane Nutting, Director of Access and Inclusion at Imagination Stage.