On august 21st, fourteen states will be treated to a total solar eclipse, while the rest of the continental US will see at least a partial covering of the sun. Stores across the country have seen special solar eclipse protective eye-wear fly off the shelves as the country prepares for an event it hasn’t witnessed on this scale in nearly 100 years.
Common sense tells us that those without the full use of their sight will miss the awe-inspiring aspects of the eclipse. Luckily, Dr. Henry Winter thinks outside of conventional wisdom and is bringing this once in a lifetime event to everyone. Winter, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory took his passion for inclusive science education and applied it to the solar eclipse by developing the Eclipse Soundscape app. It creates a unique, multi-sensory eclipse experience for those who are blind, visually impaired, and DeafBlind.
It all began when Winter attended a Tactile Signage Symposium. He was working on a project to help create multi-sensory museum astronomy exhibits to make the subject more accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired. “I wanted to bring more people into it, and make more tactile information using 3D printers.” Winter said of his goal. It was there that he met many of the people who would later come on board as blind and visually impaired consultants, “One thing that was of paramount importance was to have someone who is visually impaired or blind on the project. Having them onboard the team kept us honest.”
Unfortunately, though, it is not enough to simply have a great idea. In order to implement it Winter needed to find funders to back his project. With a hard deadline of August 21st, Winter and his team needed to work quickly to submit proposals to NASA and the National Science Foundation. “NASA has been very generous and supportive. They don’t give money to everyone, and they don’t give money to something they don’t think has a chance of working.” Winter explained, “NASA’s mission is to bring scientific knowledge to everyone.”
NASA in recent years has begun to make an effort to include underrepresented segments of society in their educational materials. The idea of making a solar eclipse accessible was something they got right behind. So the team was able to pull together, finish designs, and implement them in time for the big day.
With the help of their consultants, including Wanda Diaz Merced who works as an astronomer and is passionate about the accessibility of science, the team created the most important app feature—the rumble map. During the eclipse, it will show in real-time how the sun appears using sound and vibration. The user runs their finger across the screen and a whirring sound gets louder when you are over an area with more light. During the total eclipse (if you are lucky enough to be somewhere to experience it) the sound is capable of indicating where the sun’s corona can be seen at the height of coverage. For those experiencing a partial eclipse, it will indicate where the light is greatest, while simultaneously showing where the darker areas are.
What is truly remarkable about the app, is that not only does it generate an audio output, but it also vibrates—providing much needed tactile feedback to those who are DeafBlind. “Apple would not let us have access to the haptic motors.” Winter said, talking about the system that allows phones to vibrate when it receives a phone call or text message. “I hired an audio engineer, they actually worked on the details.” Winter continued, explaining how they overcame this problem, “We used FM synthesis modulation. It uses a series of different tones in conjunctions to make new tones and sound and using these specially designed tones, we can make the device shake.” While using the app, you can actually feel that it is different than the regular haptic motors. DeafBlind users will notice that it feels exactly like speakers do when music is playing. It is a very soft and pleasant vibration, rather than more abrupt shaking of the phone.
“What I’d love to do is use this technique and combine it with the haptics as well.” Winter continued, “We can give the user more control over the process, and create this rich and engaging experience.” Ultimately, Winter would like to see this design being applied in more educational settings. Museums around the world rely heavily on visual displays—especially for astronomy exhibits. Winter would like to see not only more 3D printed tactile displays, but introduce audio and haptics to invoke a more immersive experience.
Once, I had the pleasure of visiting the Air and Space Smithsonian in Washington D.C. where I encountered a 3D map of energy distribution in the universe starting from the big bang until today. Though I cognitively understand this concept from science coursework, it was the first time it really clicked for me. Imagine how powerful and dynamic a display like that would be if it included not just a static tactile image but could incorporate sound and vibration to show more details.
That is the future Winter wants to create. “I was doing visual wall displays. I realized I was excluding all these people because I was just building visuals.” He said of his career in science education, “I want universal design, so everyone has an enriching and engaging experience.” This line of thought is what compelled him to create Eclipse Soundscape—but it was his passion that expanded it beyond the horizons of mobile devices.
To reach the goal of generating a multi-sensory eclipse experience beyond the app, Winter and his team needed to work with the National Parks Service. “They have the natural sounds unit. Where they have audio professionals who go out into wilderness areas with binaural microphones.” Winter explained, “And what that does is it recreates the experience of listening to things in your own head. So you can hear what is left, right, and distant.”
On the day of the eclipse— which is August 21st just in case you forgot— audio engineers will go out into sixteen national parks from around the country. Their goal will be to record the sounds of the eclipse. This was something Winter realized was important after speaking with a librarian from the New York Talking Books and Braille Library, who herself was blind. She inquired about what an eclipse was like, “I have no language to convey what an eclipse was like. All my vocabulary is ablest, it’s based on sight and visuals.” Winter remembered, “I was sitting completely dumbfounded. Then I remembered a story that a friend told me about when he saw his first eclipsed…”
It is a common misconception that the only interesting part of the eclipse is the spectacular visual display happening overhead. But for those who stop and listen, the sounds of night and morning will play all around you. The feeling of the sun against your skin will disappear, and the temperature will drop slightly. For the first time, with the help of the National Parks Service and the team of Eclipse Soundscape, this multi-sensory experience will be available to everyone. Because wondering at the awe of nature is not just for the hearing and sighted—it is meant for all people.
So everyone say it with me, on August 21st (whether you can see and hear or not) go outside and experience the eclipse. Feel the temperature drop as the moon’s shadow falls on the Earth, and listen to the sounds of nature. Oh, and keep your finger on your phone and feel the vibrations and hear the sounds of the 2017 Solar Eclipse.
Eclipse Soundscape is available on iTunes and Google Play.
*Note: If using hearing aids that stream audio from your phone, disconnect before using the app. It causes static and I found it to be uncomfortable. It will also prevent the vibration aspect of the app to function properly.
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