Eclipse Soundscapes, a new iOS app from a project at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium, is a highly accessible tool designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired to experience the August 21, 2017 eclipse.
The app includes illustrative audio descriptions (provided by WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media) so that people who cannot see the eclipse can enjoy a narration of the eclipse in real time. In addition, an interactive “rumble map,” allows users to explore the physical properties of an eclipse through vibrational feedback in their smartphones.
This rumble map is a particularly innovative solution for bringing tactiles to a mobile device. Because Apple does not generally allow developers access to the haptic motor in their devices, Eclipse Soundscapes used a technology called “FM Synthesis” to mimic a haptic response. The rumble map reads a grayscale value under the user’s finger, scales it from 0-1, and then adjusts the volume of a low frequency tone to produce vibrations in a phone’s speakers with a strength relative to the brightness of that section. The tool, created in collaboration between Eclipse Soundscapes audio engineer Miles Gordon and iOS developer Arlindo Goncalves, is based on the haptic response usually experienced in gaming and virtual reality platforms.
The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) not only developed the audio descriptions of the eclipse, they provided an extensive evaluation to identify accessibility obstacles and to recommend solutions to make the app easier and more efficient to use for people with disabilities. “Generally speaking, NCAM found that Eclipse Soundscape meets nearly all applicable accessibility policies and recommendations,” NCAM summarized in its report. “Users who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing should have few if any problems operating the app.”
NCAM went on to praise the key features of the app, reporting: “The app contains structural markup to enable simple and efficient navigation. The rumble map, a key component of the app, is clearly labeled and can be identified and operated with VoiceOver, and images in the rumble map are clearly described for users who are blind or visually impaired.”
“We have thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with the iOS app, it’s an incredibly well put together piece of software, exemplifying accessibility and simplicity to support multi-modal learning,” the National Federation of the Blind’s access technology team said. The team agreed that the rumble map would be more accessible with access to the haptic motor, but said “overall it is clear that a huge amount of work has gone into making this app, the information it presents and the ways it presents it make for an excellent user experience, and we are extremely impressed with the quality.”
“Earcatching” was the word a congenitally blind beta tester used to describe Eclipse Soundscapes. “When I evaluate something, I don’t only look at whether it is accessible, I look at if it is fun and interesting,” she said. “It’s really fun to explore the rumble map with the sound and figure out all the bright and dark spots.”
Now that the app is publicly available (for free) in the App Store, users seem to be enjoying it just as much. “Now I am even more excited for the eclipse!” one five star reviewer wrote. “The app is a fantastic concept and beautifully executed.” “It’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in awhile,” wrote another. “I can see a very small bit, and the rumble map and descriptions have brought this whole eclipse thing to my level. I recommended it to my friends even though they have normal eyesight.”
You can download Eclipse Soundscapes for iOS here: https://appsto.re/us/F0Uolb.i For more information about the project, visit EclipseSoundscapes.org