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Accessible Radio Project Grows

Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, Towson University professor and NPR Labs researcher, plans to spend the next six months asking people in the visually-impaired, hard of hearing and geriatric communities what features they’d like to see in an HD Radio.

Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, Towson University professor and NPR Labs researcher, plans to spend the next six months asking people in the visually-impaired, hard of hearing and geriatric communities what features they’d like to see in an HD Radio.

That’s important, said Bill Pasco, director of Sun Sounds of Arizona, a radio reading service, who spoke at a press conference describing the joint project on accessible radios involving Harris Corp., NPR Labs and the Maryland university.

Reading services, said Pasco, are human. “It’s your neighbors reading to you.” He’s excited by the promise of reading services being received on mainstream digital radios rather than specialized SCA receivers that are served via FM subcarriers.

However, Pasco cautioned, that promise won’t mean anything if the HD Radios are not accessible, noting that the trend in consumer electronics these days is to make devices with tiny buttons for those who are young and have good vision.

“Older people, people with low or no vision, a rapidly growing group, are getting really tired of being handed just one more box which excludes them from the mainstream.”

While NPR Labs and Harris have worked on trying to develop accessible features for HD Radios for 18 months, January’s CES convention marked the launch of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology.

ICART will be headquartered at Towson, with the university housing the primary administrative and academic research offices. NPR Labs is providing technology R&D and software development, Harris Broadcast supplies transmission and research support.

(click thumbnail)ICART co-director Dr. Ellyn Sheffield shows the accessible radio interface on a Delphi dashboard screen. Behind her are Harris CEO/Chairman/President Howard Lance; Towson University Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Terry Cooney; Executive Director of the No. Va. Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons Cheryl Heppner; and Sun Sounds of Arizona Director Bill Pasco. Not pictured are NPR VP of Engineering Mike Starling, and CEO Ken Stern.The launch kicked off with a live, low-power demonstration. An HD Radio broadcast was translated into text to show how the display of an accessible HD-R receiver would look in the dash.

Sheffield, assistant professor of psychology at Towson and co-director of ICART, stressed the split-screen feature, noting that the passenger, not the driver, would be reading the large text.

The demo demonstrated how visually impaired people can “see” live radio content on special receivers by applying a TV closed-captioning process to radio. The technology also will provide audio cues and voice prompts, as well as advanced radio reading services.

Initially, closed captioning text would be created by live, court-reporting-type captioners at individual stations and networks. Ultimately, the organizers hopes to use advanced speech-to-text translation software applications to expand the captioning across the radio dial.

To preserve the copyright exemption for reading services, the HD-R signal would be encrypted using conditional access, the technology from NDS giving a station the ability to permit or deny the receiver the ability to decode the signal.

HD-R chipsets containing conditional access capability are to be released to receiver makers later this year.

Harris will provide $50,000 in seed money over two years towards the effort.

Organizers of the group called for the establishment of an international consortium of equipment manufacturers, broadcasters and other organizations to foster adoption of global accessible radio technology.

Delphi and Radiosophy have expressed an interest in making prototype receivers. The group was meeting with receiver makers at CES, looking for firm commitments.

“Beyond developing the technology, this initiative will ensure the accessibility of these radio services at minimal costs,” said NPR Vice President/Chief Technology Officer Mike Starling, co-director of the project.

The HD Radio signal has the ability to “wake up” the radio and provide emergency alerts, said Radiosophy co-founder and VP Technical Bill Billings. Audible alerts could be provided for the visually impaired as well as “bed shaker” support for the hard of hearing, he said.

Cheryl Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, said, “Beyond having crucial emergency information, captioned radio could also open up a world I’ve never had, because I lost my hearing just before my seventh birthday.”

The initiative has more than a dozen members. In addition to founding members NPR, Harris and Towson University, supporting organizations include Ibiquity, Delphi, NDS, Radiosophy, Helen Keller Institute, Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH(NCAM), Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, and the G3ict, an advocacy initiative of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development.

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