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Building an Audio App for the Visually Impaired

During the final year of my Multimedia Technology and Design degree at the University of Kent, I had to come up with a final year project. This could range from video production to 3D modelling, interactive applications to programming systems. I decided to work together with a classmate on a client-based learning app.

Because of my internship at Epic the previous year, I was able to use the skills, knowledge and experience learned from that experience and apply them to my university project.

The growing interest in mobile learning inspired me to work on a mobile app. The final deliverable of the project was agreed to be an audio guide iPad application with custom accessibility features for the ‘Turner and the Elements’ exhibition in Margate. It would include ten artworks described for the visually impaired and represented through dramatic soundscapes. The app would be developed in collaboration with Charles Dickens School’s Visually Impaired unit, the Turner Contemporary Gallery and the University of Kent.

One of the most important parts of developing the app was understanding the target user – the visually impaired users who would visit the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Later, the exhibition was made accessible from people’s homes, giving those who were unable to visit the gallery a chance to participate and gain an experience similar to those who visited in person.

This target user profile required a good understanding of the built-in accessibility features as well as the ability to think outside the box and consider options not offered by Apple. For instance, some users of the app might feel comfortable using a regular app with built-in accessibility tags and labels, but the vast majority likely have never owned or used an iPad and would struggle to use even the basic features. Our app wasn’t compatible with voice-over (the built-in accessibility function). Instead, we created our own audio version of instructions.

With usability at the core of the research, many informal tests were carried out during the course of the project. This included a trip to the gallery itself where children and staff tested the application whilst being in front of the paintings.

This challenging project was a great experience – both for my own personal and media skills. Furthermore, as a team we were able to demonstrate intensive accessibility research, audio recording and editing, tablet design, objective-c programming and intensive usability testing.

Judging from the feedback received from the client and other staff members at the gallery, the app itself has been very successful. It was reassuring to see the students’ excitement and engagement, along with their positive evaluations, at the final meeting in the gallery. Collaborating with many people to achieve one goal was a great experience.

Both my classmate and I received a first-class honours in our degrees, were awarded the Sagittarius Digital Prize for the Best integrated Multimedia project in Multimedia Technology and Design (BSc) and were highly commended in the Innovation award category at the Kent Innovation Awards 2012.

These awards and honours just wouldn’t have been possible without the background and skills that I learned at Epic during my placement year. And my interest in accessibility and design continues. Here at Epic, I have the opportunity to share my past experience with creating a mobile app and learn from my colleagues’ own personal and professional experiences.

The app is available for free download on iTunes.

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