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Hear the 2017 Eclipse

How the Eclipse Soundscapes app is opening up this cosmic event to the blind and visually impaired community.

The concepts of light and shadow are crucial to how most of us understand a solar eclipse. But what if you had never seen the light of the sun before? What if an accident or a genetic condition impeded your ability to perceive the shadows of nightfall? For 1.3 million Americans who are blind, and many more who are visually impaired, experiencing the wonder of a total solar eclipse may seem like a pipedream. The Eclipse Soundscapes Project wants to change that.

The Eclipse Soundscapes Project, sponsored by NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium, will allow both sighted and non-sighted users to experience the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017 through sound — by recording changes in natural and urban soundscapes during the eclipse, and through illustrative audio descriptions (provided by WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media, or NCAM) so that people who are blind and visually impaired can enjoy a narration of the eclipse in real time. The Eclipse Soundscapes app also includes an interactive “rumble map,” so users can explore the physical properties of an eclipse through vibrational feedback in their smartphones.

“The archetypal image of an astronomer is somebody with their eye to a telescope looking out to the stars — that automatically leaves out the segment of the population who are blind and visually impaired,” said Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter, the project’s founder and principal investigator. “But science works for everyone, no matter who you are. Giving people who have been traditionally excluded from the astronomy and astrophysics enterprise a tool to explore science on their own terms is giving them an experience which means a lot to me.”

Audio is an ideal way for blind and visually impaired users to experience an eclipse, not only because there is some anecdotal evidence of soundscapes changing during a total eclipse, but because blind and visually impaired individuals naturally develop instincts to navigate the world with auditory information.

“The audio takes a visual concept and brings it into one of the ways that we experience the world without sight,” said Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced, a blind astrophysicist consulting on the project. “Audio is the fastest and most straightforward way to provide an experience that we hope will awe people.”

Exploring the eclipse with the Eclipse Soundscape app may even give visually impaired individuals a leg up on their sighted peers when it comes to eclipse knowledge. NCAM developed the audio descriptions of the eclipse with methods usually designated for educational materials such as textbooks. The details of the description are “dictated by the context of the image, not necessarily its complexity or visual interest,” said Bryan Gould, director of Accessible Learning and Assessment Technologies at NCAM. “Since the Eclipse Soundscapes project has specific educational goals for each phase of the eclipse, this image description includes scientific and technical terms and their definitions.”

With this additional information, those listening may contribute something new to a discussion of the eclipse with their sighted peers. The “rumble map” also allows for a detailed up-close exploration of the sun and moon, where a user may find elements that a person viewing the eclipse wouldn’t notice.

The goal is to have a multitude of tools, so visually impaired individuals can interact with the eclipse independently and on their own terms. “Disabled people are as different from one another as abled people are,” Dr. Diaz-Merced said. “Actually, we are more different from one another. I need to be able to bring my own strategies to anything I do. Not coping strategies, but my own strategies.”

While Eclipse Soundscapes is primarily focused on the blind and visually impaired community, the audio and tactile tools used in the project could benefit anyone who learns or communicates through non-visual measures. After the August 21 eclipse, the Eclipse Soundscapes team plans to expand the prototype into an interactive and immersive multi-sensory museum exhibit. The multi-sensory information adds to the experience for visual people, Dr. Winter said, “but allows for different ways to engage people who are visually impaired, or deaf, or neuroatypical.” However you collect information about the world around you, the hope is that you thoroughly enjoy the experience of learning something new.