HD Radio for Elderly in Sight?

Help Seen for Aging Boomers and Other Sight- and Hearing-Impaired
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Help Seen for Aging Boomers and Other Sight- and Hearing-Impaired

We're all getting older. For that reason, among others, some IBOC proponents want to make HD Radios accessible to those with poor vision or hearing before baby boomers start to retire around 2010.

To do so, they reason, would be to bring radio services to more people; it's also good business. For example, Dave Noble, a member of the technology committee for the International Association of Audio Information Services, which represents radio reading services, said conservative estimates put the number of visually impaired Americans at 10 million.

IAAIS President Heather Lusignan drives home the point that visually and hearing-impaired consumers "do all the same things we do," including purchasing radios and goods advertised on radio.

Radio World has reported on IAAIS efforts to have radio reading services included on the IBOC platform. Reading services could be one of several types of data services included on a station's HD Radio digital stream, proponents say.

The association believes its effort is closer to success following an on-air demo in May.

Four-digital channel demo

Proponents hope by next year's NAB to demonstrate "conditional access capability" for HD Radio. This would enable a hearing or visually impaired person to use "accessible" features.

At NAB2006, NPR Labs demonstrated one aspect of the concept, synchronous audio and text captioning, in the booths of Harris and Broadcast Electronics. The closed-circuit demo featured four HD Radio channels running through an exciter. The throughput rates and formats for the channels were: news at 48 kilobits per second, classical at 36 kbps, electronic music at 24 kbps and a radio reading service at 12 kbps, for a total of 120 kbps.

The throughput rate was higher than the usual 96 kbps for FM because the digital signals were transmitted using both the currently FCC-authorized digital sideband carriers plus the "extended hybrid mode," the digital sideband carriers closer to the analog center channel in the Ibiquity Digital system.

Using the extended hybrid carriers potentially could give a station about an extra 49 kbps of throughput, or a potential 144 kbps total, said NPR Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Mike Starling, who's also executive director of NPR Labs.

A "handful" of stations, said Starling, have received experimental authorization from the FCC to use the extended hybrid carriers.

Starling and others interviewed for this article said Ibiquity is working on optimizing its HDC codec to improve performance at 12 kbps. "We asked them to improve the performance at 12 kilobits so that it would be substantially better than the quality you could get through an analog SCA," said Starling.

"One of the things that we wanted to demonstrate here was even first-generation HD Radios will pick up extended hybrid mode all the way out to 120 kilobits. Our vision for the future is that you'll be able to add a captioned radio service."

The concept is that on certain HD Radios, both the display screen and the captioned text would be large. Such captioning could be sponsored, Starling noted.

Synchronizing the audio to the text is key. It's more difficult for hearing-impaired listeners to follow text and audio separately.

'Help me'
12 Kilobit Reading Service Demoed at IAAIS ConferenceIn May, attendees of the IAAIS national convention heard an over-the-air demo of a radio reading service on KPBS(FM) in San Diego. Two receivers were used: an SCA receiver and a Boston Acoustics Recepter HD.

The station simulcast its HD Radio signal on the 67 kHz subcarrier. The approximately 100 attendees at the IAAIS annual convention heard the same programming on both radios.

The digital broadcast used the extended hybrid mode at a throughput of 12 kilobits per second.

Kneller said the most likely interference would be to the host analog signal because the extended hybrid carriers are so close to it; in this demo no such interference was observed, he said.

Lusignan said the quality difference between the subcarrier and digital signal was "incredible. You could have heard a pin drop" in the room.

While there have been other on-air demos of the extended hybrid mode, this was the first over-the-air demo of a radio reading service to operate in HD-R and the first on the extended hybrid mode, participants said.

Kneller said there had been skepticism from some IAAIS members about what HD Radio audio would sounds like at 12 kbps; some believed it would sound like audio streaming over the Internet. "To the average person who's not a trained listener, this sounded like FM," rather than typical SCA receiver audio, he said.
Cheryl Heppner, who lost her hearing at age 7, agrees that the proposed services are important. She is executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center, an outreach group; she challenged station representatives attending the Public Radio Engineering Conference this spring.

"All the emergency evacuation kits say you should bring a portable radio. How does this help me? You guys have to help me."

Starling assured her that captioned radio could be a reality within two to three years.

Mike Duke, government affairs chair for the IAAIS and manager of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting Radio Reading Service, said electronics have become very "screen dependent." Audible commands would be helpful to the blind and visually impaired, he said.

The IAAIS believes about 1 million people listen to radio reading services, 10 percent of the visually impaired U.S. population. "Lots of people can still see, but can't read anymore," said Duke. "Sometimes disabilities like dyslexia or a stroke affects reading ability. Failing eyesight is the number one reason for loss of independence."

The expense of new technologies also limits reading. Given the lack of accessible capabilities in today's radios, this makes adding features to the HD Radio platform urgent, he said.

Radio reading services began operating using SCAs, or FM subcarriers, in Minneapolis in 1969. Now more than 100 such services exist, according to the IAAIS.

Lusignan says there's no exact number for how many people listen on SCA receivers because many of the special radios are used in hospitals or senior facilities.

Delivering the special radios to listeners and keeping track of the units takes a lot of time; and the cost of up to $100 per SCA receiver is a drain on community groups serving the blind and visually impaired, industry sources said. They believe a reading service on a digital signal will sound much better and that adding radio reading services via HD Radio will enable more of those who need the services to get them. This assumes, they add, that HD Radios eventually will be at or below the same price point as SCA receivers.

"Reading services have put up with poor quality audio since we started, and the listening audience doesn't have a choice of stations," said Noble.

While most people associate radio reading services with the blind or vision-impaired, such services also serve those with paraplegia, tremors or allergies to newsprint, said Noble.

Lusignan said options to help the blind and visually impaired could include tactile and audible tuning controls.

Although RDS radios have been considered as a platform for live captioning, previous NPR tests on receivers found insufficient throughput to achieve such captioning; also, the network has not been able to find RDS receivers that support multi-line displays or variable font sizes, Starling said.

"Accessible," however, does not mean universal. Not everyone can have access to a radio reading service. An authorized group must deem listeners eligible. Congress has established a copyright exemption for the reading of print information to the blind and visually impaired. In order to maintain the exemption, reading services must ensure that only authorized people can hear the service, in which newspaper and other media articles are read verbatim over the air.

HD Radios have the potential to be addressable, however transmission hardware, software and new receivers would need to be developed to make conditional access - called encryption by some - a reality on any supplemental audio channel, including those in the extended hybrid mode. The idea is that once someone buys an HD Radio and is deemed eligible to receive a reading service, the listener gives the serial number of the radio to the reading service and the service is activated, in much the same way satellite radio services handle subscriptions and premium channels.

Ibiquity has contracted with NDS, a company that specializes in conditional access technology for TV, to develop such capability for HD Radio, a spokeswoman confirmed. Proponents hope the company will be able to demo a conditional access concept by next year's spring NAB.

The FCC would need to approve both the use of the extended hybrid mode and conditional access.

'Huge' potential

Harris believes the concepts of the extended hybrid mode and conditional access are "huge," according to Hal Kneller, chair of the tech committee of IAAIS and the Harris sales rep for noncom stations. Conditional access could be used for a host of station data services in addition to radio reading services, he said. Most often described in this vein for public radio is a so-called "pledge free" channel for big donors.

Commercial stations would no doubt be interested in conditional access as well for reading services and subscription channels, he said.

NPR and the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media have applied for federal grant money so they and Ibiquity and other technology partners, can develop, field test and assess accessible services for HD Radio. Grant awards will be announced in the fall.

Harris has committed funding toward the second and third years of the program.

Among the questions NPR wants to study are interference consequences of using the extended hybrid mode.

In the meantime, proponents need to work with receiver makers on the concept in the design phase for future HD Radios. "Our work over the next year and a half is talking with receiver manufacturers about shaping buttons certain ways," including tuning discussions and how the accessibility features would be displayed on the radio, Noble said. The IAAIS also is discussing whether to lend its name and a logo to accessible HD Radios.

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