Best in Category - Digital Design 2021

Action Audio

AKQA / Monash University / Tennis Australia

Action Audio is an innovative accessibility audio service designed for blind and low vision sports fans to enjoy live sport.

Action Audio is an innovative accessibility audio service for sports broadcasts that allows people with blindness and low vision to experience the sports they love, in real time, alongside their sighted friends and family.

Applied to tennis, Action Audio translates live ball position and other on-court data into a spatialised sound design that allows audiences to ‘see’ the state of play through sound, without the need for visual information.

Action Audio was co-designed in partnership with blind and low vision sports fans. It launched at the 2021 Australian Open tennis finals through digital radio, and simulcast on Vision Australian Radio.

Design Brief

For the approximately 600,000 Australians living with blindness or low vision, the experience of broadcast sport is severely compromised. Televised coverage relies overwhelmingly on visual information, while radio commentary is often too slow to give fans a true sense of the live action.

Our challenge was to use existing technologies to improve the live broadcast experience for people with blind and low vision, and allow them access to real-time match information in a way that is easy to understand, non-distracting and that could be enjoyed socially by people of all visual abilities.

The objective was to create a new standard for broadcast sports accessibility, and an experience that blind and low vision sports fans can enjoy socially. Action Audio has been designed to successfully be able to be applied to other global sporting events and codes beyond tennis.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Using existing technology was an important part of the creation of Action Audio, and a major component of this was utilising the Hawkeye ball-tracking data already in use at major tennis tournaments.

Ball tracking data from the Australian Open’s Hawkeye point adjudication system forms the backbone of the Action Audio experience. Traditionally used for line calls and replays, the ability to activate this data as a live feed is in itself an innovation.

In 2019 AKQA began analysing Hawkeye data from the 2018 AO Men’s final, exploring creative ways to use it to enhance the live sports broadcast experience. As we worked more closely with the teams at Tennis Australia and Monash University, we realised that the techniques we had developed could be used to create a rich and meaningful experience for sports fans with blindness or low vision.

Through the combination of sound design, audio production and data processing techniques we were able to create a unique and meaningful piece of work.

Teams from AKQA and Monash University worked collaboratively with the Blind Tennis Association and Blind Sports & Recreation Victoria to co-design the Action Audio experience with blind and low vision sports fans.

Over a two year process of co-design, prototyping and iterative testing with blind tennis fans, we developed a set of sound design principles to make best use of this data, and create an enjoyable and informative experience for blind audiences with minimal onboarding.

Action Audio launched during the finals of the 2021 Australian Open tennis tournament to a global audience of millions. It was provided as a free audio stream through the AO website, and simulcast on Vision Australia Radio.

For many blind sports fans, it was the first time they could follow the Open live, alongside friends and family.

Design Excellence

Action Audio fills a gap in user experience for sports fans living with blindness or low vision. Previous broadcasts for low vision audiences have relied solely on spoken descriptive commentary, which is limited in its capacity to provide to-the-moment information about match progress. Action Audio demonstrates inclusive and accessible design practice to set a new standard in accessibility for sport.

Audio instructions on how to use Action Audio were aired as interstitial packages regularly throughout Australian Open finals. Our testing indicated that audiences with limited knowledge of tennis understand the logic of Action Audio's sound design quickly and intuitively.

Four key sound design principles guided the creation:

1. Social Consideration
Much of the value that sports fans receive from watching sports is social, and blind fans are no different. Action Audio is designed for co-watching experiences by both low vision and sighted audiences.

2. Existing Sound Languages
There is a rich and active global blind sports community that uses its own sound languages to participate in sports. We adopted elements of these languages for consistency and familiarity.

3. Accentuated Tension Points
Sport is about pushing the limits. Our sound design emphasises dramatic moments within play, and signals when a breakthrough is likely approaching.

4. Selective Auditory Attention
We filter out sounds around us in order to focus on relevant information. Action Audio is designed to be ‘filterable’ so as not to override other necessary information or unnecessarily distract.

We used eye and gaze tracking tools to deconstruct, understand and explore the sighted spectator experience as a way to inform the blind/low vision experience.

Action Audio sets a new benchmark in accessible inclusive design. It’s designed to use existing technology associated with large sporting events, and therefore able to be implemented by various sporting codes and events and in turn their loyal fans globally.

Design Innovation

Action Audio is a global first in accessibility experiences for live sports broadcasts. For many blind and low vision tennis fans, its implementation at the Australian Open represented the first time they were able to follow a live broadcast tennis match with friends, and without assistance.

This result was achieved through the innovative combination of two existing technologies:

  • Ball monitoring technologies. The computer vision systems used for ball tracking in sports have traditionally been used to enhance the visual aspect of sport for post-event replay, or by officials to review and adjudicate on contentious points. Action Audio uses this same technology as a live data feed that can be translated into sound to make the sonic experience of sport more accessible for audiences.
  • 3D audio technology. ‘Spatial sound’ has matured through its application in consumer virtual reality - largely for entertainment purposes. Action Audio uses similar game engine technology and spatial sound to situate on-court events for accessibility purposes. It’s an example of the virtualisation of sport in video games providing new ways to improve the spectator experience of live sport.

The use of existing and ubiquitous technologies to create Action Audio means that the same solution is transferable to other sporting codes without prohibitive upfront costs. We anticipate offering Action Audio at future Australian Open tournaments, and are in discussions to offer it at other major global sporting events.

Action Audio is user centered design and proven to be easy to use. Kala (10) who has very low vision and was part of our research group says - “I don't know why, but I can suddenly see the ball. I can actually hear everything and I can actually see the ball.”

Design Impact

As a Strategic Design and Innovation company, we truly exist to create a better future and positive impact.

Action Audio launched to a global audience of millions during the men’s, women’s and wheelchair finals of the 2021 Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament.

The total global audience reach exceeded 275,000, and widespread media coverage.

Many blind tennis fans reported that it was the first time they could follow an Australian Open final without assistance.

Mikey, Action Audio research group member with very low vision said:
“I want you to know the difference you have made in all of our lives. If I went to the game this Sunday without this technology I would be frustrated that I wouldn't be able to actually see what's happening…. knowing I will be able to follow the game, words can't explain how excited I am to feel normal.”

A combined audience reach of 285,000 across the Australian Open finals week including:

  • 10-12k listeners on Vision Australia radio
  • 1800 listeners via the AO website
  • 3k unique visitors to the Action Audio website
  • 1000 video impressions
  • 270k viewers on Channel 9 News segment profiling Action Audio

A dedicated, accessibility optimised website also gave people additional information on the project, including a guide to understanding the Action Audio sound design.

Action Audio is sustainable in its design, as it uses existing technologies already in place for other sporting codes and can be scaled accordingly.

Action Audio contributes to Victoria’s design and creative culture, as evident by the project group who brought this pilot to life. Led by AKQA’s Melbourne Innovation team, with support from Tennis Australia and Monash University, Action Audio launched in Melbourne but on the international stage at the Australian Open 2021, and is a significant showcase of leading design in Victoria.

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