08/18/2017

How The Blind Can ‘Watch’ A Solar Eclipse

8:01 minutes

Credit: Carolyn Beeler/PRI

On Monday, millions of people across the country will look up to watch the moon cover the sun and create darkened skies in the middle of the day. One group of researchers is working on providing a way for visually impaired eclipse chasers to experience the event. In place of pinhole cameras or solar filter lenses, astrophysicist Henry Winter helped create the Eclipse Soundscapes app that conveys different properties of the eclipse with vibrations and sounds.

Learn more about Eclipse Soundscapes here.

[Today, a solar eclipse may be a thing of beauty, but it historically has caused panic around the world.]

Segment Guests

Henry Winter

Henry Winter is a principle investigator for Eclipse Soundscapes. He’s also an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He’s based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. It’s your final weekend to get ready for the eclipse. Millions of people will look up toward the sky on Monday to watch the moon block out the sun and create darkness in the middle of the day. Eclipse fans are putting the finishing touches on their pinhole cameras or chasing down a pair of approved solar lenses. But for the visually impaired, the tools are a bit different. My next guest is developing an app for that.

Henry Winter is principal investigator for the Eclipse Soundscapes app. He’s also an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Henry Winter, welcome to Science Friday.

HENRY WINTER: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell me, why were you interested in building an eclipse app for the visually impaired?

HENRY WINTER: Because I wanted for people who are blind or visually impaired to have a way to interact with everybody else and enjoy the awe and wonder and splendor of this once in 100 years event, a total solar eclipse that’s going to come across from one end of the United States and cut through all the way to the other coast. I looked around. And I didn’t see any other way for them to actually be out there with their sighted peers and enjoy the eclipse that everybody else in North America is going to be enjoying. And we sat down. And we started thinking about how we could solve that particular problem.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And you are sighted yourself. So who did you talk to? How did you figure out what would work?

HENRY WINTER: I am sighted. But I did realize early on that if this project was going to work, we had to have someone who was blind and visually impaired on the team at all times keeping us honest, making sure that we were serving the community that we were trying to build tools for. So early on, I had a blind astronomer who’s also a colleague somebody I’d worked with before, Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced joined the team. She is one of the few blind astronomers that I know.

And that gave us a unique insight into how someone who is blind or visually impaired interacts with astronomy, a field that is primarily visual in nature. Our ways of communicating messages about astronomy are primarily visual. So that was a huge learning experience.

And then later on, we had other people who are blind or visually impaired come on and give us some feedback. We worked with the National Center for Accessible Media out of WGBH Studios. And they were able to do illustrated descriptions of images. This is taking the content of an image and providing a text, some vocabulary that is accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired, along with everybody else, but that explains what’s going on in these different images– in this case, particularly the eclipse– and put it in the language that is accessible to people who have never seen before.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, could you describe–

HENRY WINTER: And that was truly amazing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, describe that describe what the app is going to do and how it will allow people to experience the eclipse.

HENRY WINTER: OK, well, the app has many parts. We didn’t want to make just one experience. The first experience that you have is what I was telling you about. The National Center for Accessible Media did all these great verbal descriptions of what an eclipse is, the different stages of the eclipse, and what features you can see during these different stages of the eclipse. So if you download our app– and you can find the link on eclipsesoundscapes. org. It’s available now for Apple iOS and Android.

The app will– once you load it on your mobile device and give it permissions– it will find where you are in the United States. And as the eclipse is going on in your local area, it will give you a verbal play by play of what everybody else is experiencing around you and hopefully give you some information that maybe even your sighted peers don’t have access to so that instead of just having this one way communication of people who are sighted telling people who are blind what’s going on, now people who are blind can actually tell people who are sighted what’s going on and give them some more information. We think that’s really exciting.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s pretty cool. I’m John Dankosky. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I stumbled across one part of this app. It’s called a rumble map. I’m actually going to put it up to the microphone here.

[BUZZING]

I’m wondering, Henry, if you can describe what exactly the rumble map is doing here.

HENRY WINTER: Right. So the rumble map is something that we designed especially for the eclipse. And we’re planning on using it to help people explore other images, especially images in astronomy and astrophysics. But what the rumble map does is, again, it translates the information in the image. But it does so in a different way.

What happens is that as you drag your finger across the screen of your mobile device, the device then picks up the variations in light and dark and color underneath your finger and generates a specific set of tones depending upon the light level and how it changes. Now we actually specially designed these tones. We use a special process called FM synthesis. And the reason why we wanted these to be specifically designed was not just so that it would make a nice noise that sounds kind of science fictiony when you rumble around with it. But also, the tones are specially designed so that as you move your fingers across these different features and these different tones are emitted as you feel different things, the tones will use your speakers to actually shake or rumble your mobile device.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, you can feel it as you touch it. Yeah.

HENRY WINTER: Yeah. And so we recommend to everybody, take the headphones out. Turn off your Bluetooth speakers. Let the speakers shake the device. Hold the device in your hand and explore the images with your finger. And that will give you this illusion of actually feeling the outer atmosphere of the sun, which we think is a unique experience for anyone. But it’s one of the few ways that people who can’t see or people who have extremely low vision, the legally blind, can actually get this mental map of what these images look like, the information they contain.

And we thought it was very important to give people a way to explore on their own. We’ve got these guided tours. And they’re great. But they can be a little confining. That is a message that we’re telling. We want people to be able to explore on their own and in their own way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I just have a moment left. But you’re getting this database of eclipse-related sounds together that you’ll have after the event. What sort of sounds are we talking about?

HENRY WINTER: Yeah. That’s something that we’re extremely excited about. The project started– we were going to record soundscapes and play them back. But it turned out that the most interesting soundscape changes we weren’t going to be able to give on the day of the eclipse. And we wanted something live. So that’s why we worked with NCAM and developed the rumble map.

After the eclipse, we are going to collect data from all of our partners, citizen scientists just like you and your listeners. But also, too the National Park Service has joined with us. And they’ve been fantastic. And they’ve got this natural sounds unit that goes around and takes high level recordings of wildlife in the US national parks. So they’ve been busy setting up microphones in 16 national parks. And we’re hoping to record how animals react to the eclipse.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow.

HENRY WINTER: I think this is exciting. I’ve heard all these anecdotal stories about people talking about birds chirping and crickets. But this is going to be one of the first times that we have so much recording of that. And we’ll be able to see how animals, including human animals, react to the eclipse. And we’ll even be able to measure that to the sounds.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. There’s going to be human animals reacting all over the place. It’s good. We’ll have to open up our ears and listen to this eclipse with Henry Winter, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, principal investigator for the Eclipse Soundscapes app. Thanks so much for joining us.

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