Ahead of the 2017 total solar eclipse, which was experienced by millions of people across the United States, a team of scientists, educators, and experts on accessible media for people who are blind or low vision (BLV) launched a mobile app that aimed to make solar eclipses engaging for everyone. The resulting app, Eclipse Soundscapes, provided a real-time multisensory eclipse experience for BLV users. Encouraged by the app’s success, the group of developers is now expanding its educational resources ahead of the 2023 annular eclipse and 2024 total eclipse and will be introducing a new BLV-accessible citizen science eclipse research project.
Ensuring that scientific research is accessible to blind and low-vision people is about more than taking a tool created for sighted people and retrofitting it, said Lindsay Yazzolino, a BLV consultant for Eclipse Soundscapes. “It’s more than just ‘Oh, is this accessible? Can blind people use this?’ It’s ‘Are we making the most of people’s experiences and making the most of the ways that they perceive the world?’”
Building New Bridges
Scientific data are a realm of numbers, which can be difficult for many people to conceptualize. Astronomers often choose to translate data into visualizations as a way to bridge the gap, but like any information bridge, it’s limited by who can use it.
Sometimes information is already available, and theoretically, various communities could get to the information, but there’s no bridge to get there, explained MaryKay Severino, cofounder, co-CEO, and education director of ARISA (Advanced Research in Inclusion and STEAM Accessibility) Lab, which runs Eclipse Soundscapes. “With numerical data, especially in astrophysics…the primary way that the scientific community created this bridge is with visuals, and that’s how we’re allowing people to arrive….Could it be analyzed in other ways? And also, how could this experience be more autonomous when it isn’t visual, specifically to ensure access for and contribution from members of the blind and low-vision community?”
When exploring a rumble map, the user hears different tones and sounds depending on where on the image they touch the screen. In this demonstration of the rumble map for first contact, the user (floating white dot; a feature of the device, not the app) hears low-pitched taps in an even cadence when exploring areas with no light like the dark disk of the Moon. The tone rises in pitch when exploring brighter areas of the image like spots, flares, and prominences and lowers in pitch when exploring darker areas. Video Credit: Kimberly M. S. Cartier; Mobile App by ARISA Lab
During the 2017 total solar eclipse, one feature of the Eclipse Soundscapes app provided users with audio and text narration of the eclipse event as it was unfolding at their location (provided by the mobile device’s GPS system). “In real time, the mobile application allows any user to listen and hear a description that is specifically the right vocabulary for a person who’s blind or low vision” designed by one of the project’s partners, GBH National Center for Accessible Media, Severino said. This feature “created an opportunity for members of the BLV community to experience this amazing event autonomously alongside their sighted peers.”
For certain eclipse phenomena like Baily’s beads, the diamond ring, or totality, users could also explore the eclipse through auditory-tactile maps called rumble maps. “You drag your finger across these images, and depending on the brightness of the different parts of the image, you’ll hear different sound frequencies,” Yazzolino explained. Those sound frequencies were chosen specifically to resonate with a mobile device so that it hums or vibrates as the user explores the map. “Using this audio-tactile map is not the same as touching a tactile graphic because it doesn’t have the same level of detail, so the idea is that you have this map and it’s paired with text that describes the different elements and phenomena of the eclipse.”
In the rumble map of Baily’s beads, the user (floating white dot; a feature of the device, not the app) can explore the pinpoints of sunlight that shine through the uneven surface at the edge of the Moon’s disk just after totality. The user can also explore the Sun’s corona (silver wisps in the background) and prominences (pink ring of light). Video Credit: Kimberly M. S. Cartier; Mobile App by ARISA Lab
“It was very easy to navigate,” she added. “It was accessible with voice-over….People have reacted very positively to this and also to the fact that [the team] is so involved with interacting with blind people and making sure that they’re designing stuff with us, not just for us.”
“One of the things that we try to do is to have the same information encoded multiple ways to experience the same event using multiple senses—audio, text, sounds, touch, descriptions, and visualizations, as well,” said Trae Winter, cofounder, co-CEO, and chief scientist at ARISA Lab. “Whatever form of information speaks to you, whatever you interact with, it’s there for you to do.”
The app is designed specifically with people who are BLV in mind, but sighted people are likely to benefit, too. “The more pathways you use to get information into your brain, the deeper the retention and the more engaged you are with the subject,” Winter said. “Just adding these elements that might be the only access point for some people allows another access point for other people who may benefit from it.”
Ecosystems’ Relationship with Light, Through Sound
Ahead of the 2023 annular eclipse and the 2024 total solar eclipse, the Eclipse Soundscapes team is updating the mobile app to be bilingual in Spanish and English, adding lessons on annular eclipses to the experience, and expanding the rumble maps’ tactile feedback. The team is also exploring ways to offer eclipse-related 3D print files and educational materials so that schools, libraries, or anyone with a low-cost 3D printer can create tactile graphics of eclipse phenomena.
The ARISA Lab team is also moving forward with a BLV-accessible eclipse research project for citizen scientists. During a series of workshops, participants will collect audio recordings from eclipses, including some of their own that they’ll record during the 2023 and 2024 eclipses. They’ll analyze those data to explore how changes in light and circadian rhythms during eclipses affect ecosystems.
“It’s hard when you’re blind and you want to get involved in science, whether or not you’re a professional scientist,” Yazzolino said. “If you want to get involved in citizen science projects, there’s no guarantee that they will be accessible. Or even if they are accessible, many of them are not designed with us in mind, so there’s still a lot of figuring out new ways of doing things or adapting things made for sighted people to us.”
“I’m excited for [the Eclipse Soundscapes project] because it’s taking advantage of the senses that work really well for us and uses our skills to collect nature sound data in a way that’s exciting for us.”
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer