Preferences of DVS Films

Yesterday, Sam posted a question asking if I knew of any differences in how the two groups I compared (people with congenital blindness and those with acquired blindness) liked audio described (DVS) films.  I have a tiny bit of purely anecdotal information about the perceptions of the two groups and will use that to start today’s entry about descriptive video and my opinions thereof.

The sample I have for this completely unscientific survey includes four friends of mine, two who have been blind since birth, one who has been blind since childhood  and one who went blind later in life.  I provide the fifth opinion.  So, as this entirely violates any standard for objective study put it into the category of gonzo research and use the content herein purely for entertainment value.

A pair of colleagues expressed the first opinions I ever heard of DVS movies.  These conversations happened nearly eight years ago so my memory may not reflect perfectly the impressions they provided.  The first came from a congenitally blind friend who had only listened to one DVS movie, “Pretty Woman.”  He didn’t like it much but found the “blow by blow” description amusing.  The second opinion I heard came in that same year from another friend, also blind from birth, who told me that he really enjoyed descriptive video tapes.  Thus, my information from that group splits evenly and no conclusions can be drawn.

The friend who went blind in her childhood has probably listened to every DVS film ever produced and raves about them.  She has described enjoying everything from “Basic Instinct” to science fiction films to action adventure to romantic comedy.  I can’t say that I enjoy all of these genres, with descriptive video or not.

I saw or heard my first DVS movie when a friend, the other with acquired blindness in this survey, brought an audio described copy of an Indiana Jones film to the apartment I lived in around four or five years ago.  I noticed that, as we sat with the video playing on my VCR, that I paid much more attention to this movie than I had to any other in a long time, probably since losing my vision.

Since then, I have listened to a wide array of different DVS films.  I have enjoyed some very much, disliked others and found some to fall in between.  In fact, I find that, for all intents and purposes, I enjoy the same kinds of movies with DVS as I did when I could still see.

I continue to enjoy films with excellent dialogue and terrific performances.  Even when I had vision, my friends would tease me for my fixation on “chick” films.  While still a teenager, I grew out of testosterone driven, muscle pounding, explosive, fast car filled, violent films without a good script and good performances.  I don’t dismiss the entire action adventure genre out of hand (I enjoyed Arnold’s movies based on Harlan Ellison novels, I liked the first “Speed” but so did the critics at The New Yorker) but, for the most part, I find them fairly senseless.  I enjoy some crime stories but usually those, like “The Maltese Falcon” or “In Cold Blood” that the screen writers derived from excellent books.  Finally, I do not nor have I ever enjoyed pornography – some of my old friends still joke about me sitting with my back to the screen as XXX flicks played during my bachelor party.

The growing selection of DVS movies does go some distance to provide a decent selection for those of us who enjoy them but my tastes still tend toward films that don’t rise high enough in the popularity polls as to meet the criteria for going to the expense of adding a DVS track.  Of the films that did well in the Academy Awards this week, I would most like to see “Capote” as it describes a slice of the life of one of my literary heroes and “Good Night and Good Luck” which reminds us of the days when America had a press corp that hit hard and told unembedded truths.

It pleases me to see how many videos with DVS that can be found for sale in mainstream retail outlets.  I often receive bulletins about new DVS releases available on and the Barnes and Noble web site.  While writing this, I tried to go to the sites and search for DVS and only found one result (Ray) but I think they have more that don’t show up in a search because DVS doesn’t appear in the title of too many films and the sites don’t let the user search on DVD features.  WGBH remains the primary source for information about the latest in DVS productions and their Center for Accessible Media creates the descriptive track for the majority of DVS films that hit the streets.

So, I don’t think I’ve answered Sam’s question properly as my sample was even less scientific than yesterday’s.  I wonder if anyone (WGBH maybe) has done research into this matter.  


I’ve been contemplating starting a second blog with a name like BC Rants and Raves” in which I talk about issues unrelated to blindness.  It will contain my thoughts on movies, books, art, politics and life in general.  Obviously, the posts will be colored by the opinion of a blind author and blindness may make appearances but it will be incidental to the articles I write there.  I’ve also thought about including some of that kind of writing here on Blind Confidential, I think my parody sequel to 1984 would fall into the other blog rather than hear because it had little to do with blindness.  The 1984 post let me exercise my creative writing skills a bit and I had fun writing it.  I have fun writing most of the Blind Confidential entries but those in which I have greater creative latitude are most fun.

I’ve also started thinking a bit about changing the direction of Blind Confidential itself.  If you look around the Internet, a ton of web sites, online magazines, blogs, listservs and newsgroups exist that discuss current AT products.  My relationship with current and past AT offerings certainly frames a lot of what I write here and, personally, I find the more futuristic topics far more interesting.  Rather than speaking from my past as an AT professional and as a current user, I think I might enjoy looking more toward things I learn today.  Issues that regard human factors and blind technology users, topics that include accessible technology beyond the desktop and PDA like smart spaces, talking signs, access to goods and services and user agents that will work in many different places.  My professional path is moving away from screen readers of today and into researching concepts that, hopefully, will find their way into access technologies of the future.

My friends at Access World and elsewhere are better equipped to keep up with the latest versions of the latest technologies and my focus has a horizon far further in the future.  I also find remaining unbiased in my opinions very difficult.  I’ll think of the great time I had working for Ted Henter and the great gang at HJ/FS and write pieces seen through those rose tinted glasses.  Similarly, I maintain friendships with people in a lot of different companies around the biz and my opinion of their products may see the good parts and ignore the flaws as often happens when talking about the work of friends and family.  Finally, I only left FS in late November 2004 after six great years there, most of my local friends are current or former FS employees and, therefore, maintaining objectivity of any sort is impossible as my strong feelings about these people will be reflected in any review I do of their work or that of another company.

I think I’ve maintained a reasonable level of objectivity in this blog thus far but some products, especially made by my friends at FS and elsewhere, get mentioned more often and probably with greater favor or, in some cases, deeper criticism than products from companies where I don’t know the parties very well.

What do you readers think?  Should I focus on the future (I can hear my friend Will Pearson jumping for joy all the way from the UK) or not?  Should I put articles unrelated to blindness in a separate blog or should I mingle my thoughts on other subjects with the
Subjects I discuss here?

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

4 thoughts on “Preferences of DVS Films”

  1. Thanks for addressing this issue. There’s a lot more teritory to cover about DVS than what you have addressed here. For example, how does DVS on commercial TV contribute to or detract from a blind person’s viewing experience of commercial TV? Do shows like the Simpsons and CSI become more accessible, or does the visual imagery superimposed over music and other elements of a show not translate accurately into verbage? Do congenitally blind people find extra description they cannot process i.e. colors and other visual terms excessive, and do those with some sight memory find these descriptions to be helpful? Can DVS really give us the full appreciation of a flick that a sighted person enjoys? While Pulp Fiction is filled with a plethora of brilliant one-liners (“maybe if I had lather”), Tarantino’s gross depictions of violence and other imagery juxtaposed against cool music is pretty revolutionary in cinematic history. Can DVS really capture what the eyes see and how the braqin processes those images?

  2. A quick follow-up. I was somewhat rushed in leaving that previous comment as you may have been able to tell. I did want to provide a link to a radio show about DVS that I helped to instigate. It explores the topic of how blind people find enjoyment from DVS at a very cursery level. Of course, the show is filled with nothing but proponents of dVS, so it doesn’t really explore my question as to whether DVS can adequately substitute for the full cinematic experience.

  3. Hi.
    First off, this is only going to be a cursory exploration of some of the issues involved with audio description. It takes something of an objective approach, and hence might be a bit bland to read, focusing on aspects of psychology and communication.

    My own opinion is that audio description does have the potential to allow blind people to engage more with the story line of a film.

    To understand the benefits of audio description it is useful to explore the relationship between semantic meaning and the physical encoding of that meaning. People often consider that communication is just the process of physical communication, for example writing or speaking, however, this can be broken down into its constituent parts. In order to communicate something, the person invoking the communication first has to think of the message they wish to communicate, which is the semantic content to be transmitted. Once they have generated the semantic content they wish to convey, they can then select an encoding scheme and physical transmission method to use to transmit that semantic content to the receiver. Therefore, there is a distinct separation between the semantic content and its physical representation.

    Considering the visual imagery of films, theatrical performances, and other situations where audio description is used, the visual imagery can serve two purposes. The first is to convey semantic content, adding to the overall semantics of the scene. This is where audio description can be of significant benefit. Given that semantics can be separated from their physical encoding, it is relatively easy to translate semantic content between a variety of physical encodings, such as speech, tactile communication, non-speech sounds, etc. all of which can convey the same semantic content to the receiver. Increasing the amount of semantics communicated to the receiver can often give them a better understanding of a scene. Additionally, important semantic content may only be communicated visually, which, if left out, would leave the receiver with an incomplete understanding of the storyline? The second purpose of visual imagery is aesthetics, and here, I am afraid, audio description cannot help. Aesthetics, by their nature, are centred on the composition of wave stimuli, such as light waves for visual stimuli. The human perceptual system uses different threshold values and different spectral ranges for different types of stimuli, and so it is difficult to arrange the same composition in another stimuli modality.

    There are some limiting factors on audio description worth mentioning. The first regards the amount of semantics that can be conveyed. Vision typically uses five physical properties of lightwaves to encode semantic content whilst mono speech, as is typically used in audio description, typically only uses two. Therefore, over the same period vision is capable of conveying a greater amount of semantic content than speech is. This means that it is unlikely that audio description can convey the full semantic content of a scene, unless the scene has sparse visual semantics. A second consideration is that speech is temporary, one moment it’s there, the next it isn’t. Whilst visual images do have temporal aspects, the temporal aspects are generally a small part of the visual semantics of a scene. This is important, as anything temporary in nature has to be remembered, and humans only have a limited capacity for remembering things in short term working memory.

    Does audio description + dialog have any advantages over vision + dialog? The answer is actually yes, and relates to attention. According to theories on human attention, humans receive information in parallel but are only capable of consciously processing information serially. This means that attention has to be switched, either between different elements of stimuli in situations where multiple sets of stimuli are presented in the same modality, or between different sensory modalities when cross-modal stimuli are used. If the parallel stimuli are temporary, such as motion in films or dialog, some of the information will be lost. This is because not all of the stimuli can be processed at once, and as it is temporary in nature, it cannot be processed at a future point in time. In most cases, it is information about the dialog that is lost, as vision tends to dominate attention in cross-modal tasks involving vision. As audio description + dialog is already serialised, this problem is avoided.

  4. First off, I’d like to thank Sam for providing a link to that radio show, and for calling in. Some very good points were raised. I cannot agree more with those who say there needs to be more legislation in favor of audio description. The service definitely needs better promotion as well. I myself really enjoy this service and I think it should be made more widely available, and yes this does include DVD’s. Not too long ago a neighbor friend and I had planned to watch “The Brothers Grimm.” At first there was a mix-up as to who was actually going to pick up the video, but that got resolved and my neighbor and I watched it. However, he had to sit there and describe everything to me. We were the only two watching at the time, so there were no outside distractions. He didn’t mind doing this at all and he did a very nice job, but the point is that yes DVD’s do need to include an audio-description track. More recently another sighted friend and I were at one of the Crown Theaters in Glenview for “Inside Man.” When we got to the box office, however, we were told that we would have to wait because the audio descriptions were only going to be made available at a later showing. This was contrary to what my friend had been told on the phone prior to our arrival. So he and I talked things over, and we ended up going out for an early dinner and shopping around before returning to watch “Inside Man.” The movie itself was not one of my favorites and I might choose not to see it again, but the audio descriptions were well-done. Besides the mainstream media working together, I think the two blindness organizations in this country absolutely must stop taking aim at each other for this and that, and instead work together to ensure as much PR as possible for all types of audio description.

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