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Issue № 114

All the Access Money Can Buy

by Published in Industry, Accessibility, Interaction Design

Just when you tell yourself accessibility is beyond the reach of online video, someone proves you wrong. And the proof comes from the place you’d least expect it. The sexy new BMW Films project targets an elite audience and is not exactly what we need, but it has nonetheless delivered a viable model of online accessibility – and with a surprising corporate commitment to boot.

Background to history

Web accessibility, viewed by absolutely everyone save for a few obsessifs like me as a burden and chore, is well past the point of being a burden and chore people can put off or avoid. High-profile examples:

  • Everyone remotely involved in U.S. federal government Web projects is biting their fingernails at the looming deadline of 21 June 2001, after which essentially all future government sites must be accessible under the so-called Section 508 requirements. Virtually every chunk of software, including Web-authoring tools, will have to be made accessible, with spillover benefits well outside the American government.
  • And Bruce Maguire, an ordinary blind civilian of no particular wealth or influence, won an Australian human-rights case against the mighty Sydney Olympics over its inaccessible Web site, eventually leading to a $20,000 fine. (Yes, they paid up.) The Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S.) and the Disability Discrimination Act (U.K.) unequivocally apply to Web sites, though very thorough documentation of that fact is unavailable online.

Even in the broadcast realm the screws are getting tighter. In Canada, the CBC was ordered to caption every single second of its broadcast day on the main network and Newsworld (now under appeal, naturally). Australian broadcasters now have captioning quotas to meet. Audio description will be required on U.S. television in coming years (though a lawsuit has been filed against such mandates). Quotas are in place for captioning and audio description in the U.K. (with some delays). And so on, and so on. And these requirements say nothing about voluntary improvements in accessibility, which far outweigh anything mandated judicially.

Reading this, you crack your espresso cup into its saucer and take a sweet languorous drag on your fag, exclaiming “Accessibility – the unstoppable juggernaut!” Well, yeah, almost.

Making a routine text-’n’-graphics Web site accessible to visitors with disabilities is not particularly difficult. Making multimedia accessible, however, is. Indeed, until recent weeks I had every reason to believe that Web video, Flash, and their ilk would never achieve even the accessibility of television. (Aren’t television and multimedia supposed to be converging? The access techniques used are the same.) As the year 2000 drew its last breaths, I explained how Macromedia in particular was blowing it in accessibility. The technical infrastructure isn’t there, and we have no training programs to teach Flashturbators (or, for that matter, DVD authors or anyone else) how to adapt their work.

While I may have appeared to be picking on Macromedia, in fact the obstacles are just as pronounced in “traditional” Web video of the QuickTime or Real sort. There are no standardized, foolproof, universally-compatible ways to do something as simple as embedding captions or subtitles in a movie stream, to say nothing of the other half of the Big Four access features, audio description and dubbing. We also see a tendency to replicate the constraints of television (where a single signal has to serve everyone, forcing access features into hiding) when what we can actually do online is serve up multiple versions of the same file with various access features pre-enabled. As it stands, you need a help file just to figure out how to turn captions on in various players.

Then BMW goes and solves part of the problem.

The ultimate access machine

To considerable fanfare, in April 2001 BMW of North America launched a site prosaically named BMWFilms.com featuring an ongoing series of short films under the rubric The Hire.

In subsequent press coverage, story angles veered wildly. We read of the project’s sexy name-brand “talent” (sexy Madonna, ugly-sexy Clive Owen) and its A-list directors and producers of various degrees of sexiness (Frankenheimer, Fincher, Ritchie, and of course the household name Gonzalez Iñárritu). We also read of the bugbear of “product placement.” Director John Frankenheimer, whose 1966 feature Seconds remains the creepiest film in the history of cinema, denied outright that The Hire constituted product placement, which presumably is a codeword for prostitution down in Hollywood.

(Trivia nugget for keener-completists: Apart from Croupier, Clive Owen will be known to certain audiences for his role as police detective Ross Tanner on various British teledramas. In a recent miniseries, Second Sight, Tanner gradually loses his vision, concealing his encroaching blindness from his bosses and more or less adapting. As part of the PBS Mystery series, Second Sight aired with audio description and captioning. One episode displayed absolutely the only case I’ve ever seen of captioning and description disagreeing over material fact. All eerily coincidental in a discussion of accessible BMW Films.)

Anyway, you head on over to BMWFilms and are presented with a range of download options. None of the files is particularly small, so we are targeting the broadband demimonde here. (Wouldn’t typical BMW buyers leave Web-surfing to their secretaries? More on that later.) True to the clichés of online cinema, The Hire’s status as a collection of courts métrages makes the online viewing experience at least marginally tolerable. I can’t imagine downloading Cleopatra or even a single episode of Space: 1999, but six minutes of BMW action flick I can handle.

I dutifully hoovered in the untold-megabyte MPEG stream and watched the first production, Frankenheimer’s Ambush. Then, weeks later, when Ang Lee’s The Chosen “premiered,” I was surprised to note something called a BMW Film Player. (Actually, three different names are used: BMW Player, BMW Films Player, and BMW Interactive Film Player. There may be no product placement here, but a bit of consistent “branding” wouldn’t hurt.) Macintosh and Windows Player versions are available, and they offer a range of dubious advantages, like notifying you when a new movie is available and playing stored movies automatically. (Can’t QuickTime do the latter already?)

Sight unseen, I immediately thought: If they can write their own damn player program, they can bloody well put in all my access features.

Of course, they didn’t. That might be too much to ask right out of the gate. But they got us halfway there.

Director’s commentary

Since the mistily-recalled days of twelve-inch videodiscs, director’s-commentary tracks have been falsely advertised as a value-adding feature. Just as a Web site isn’t considered “interactive” until it is jammed to the gills with Shockwave geegaws, a video on any species of disc is viewed as incomplete without the addition of endless yammering by a film director and, in the worst-case scenario, by practically everyone else on the crew, too.

Imagine unscripted narration delivered by a non-actor with no command of pacing or vocal inflection. The eighth circle of hell, you say? Like a buzzsaw slicing galvanized tin? No, it’s actually a feature veritably demanded by geek DVD acolytes, who, like hi-fi enthusiasts of decades before, adore the technology but are not particularly interested in the art it communicates.

And, since The Hire is a geek extravaganza, by gar we’re gonna deliver a commentary track, which the BMW Player makes possible. After you download the track, you can simply turn it on and off. The Player, moreover, gives you access to a B-story submovie that tags along with the main featurette.

But making it possible to include director’s commentary and submovies is pretty much the same task as enabling the Big Four access features. This brings us within exchange-of-bodily-fluids distance of a holy grail of online accessibility, in which you could simply select whatever access features you need. (It must be possible to do so through standardized interface elements that are themselves accessible and manipulable by adaptive technology like screen readers, and we’re not there yet, either, but it’s a start.)

Worth watching

All this matters in large part because BMW rounded up high-calibre directors. The courts métrages are not bad at all. Even if they were bad, the project is so sexy and high-profile that people would actually want to watch the films.

I happen to think that even disposable or atrocious film, TV, and Web sites need to be accessible; anything else is a kind of censorship. (Who are we to judge what a deaf or a blind persion can and cannot enjoy?) But let’s be realistic: A high-profile A-list film project takes priority simply because it draws so much interest.

And since access features add value, richness, and complexity to a work, an already-attractive film series becomes even more so when made accessible.

A killer combination

In The Hire, we have a killer combination: A high-budget film series by prestigious directors that’s “kewl” in a geeky way yet also of artistic interest. And, through the Player application, we now have incontrovertible evidence that it is possible to deliver the combination of a player that lets you turn various tracks on and off and content that actually contains such tracks that people actually want to watch.

Up to now, online accessible media has been limited to a few demonstration projects. Nice little segments on relativity or potato chips or whatnot.

But not real movies from real directors, with real production values and a marketing campaign that includes advertisements in Wallpaper<asterisk> magazine and TV commercials on CNN! (Uncaptioned commercials, by the way – another oversight.)

Well, now we’ve got ’em, and BMWFilms.com received a reported 100,000 hits in its first two days alone (and three million confirmed hits so far).

If BMW and its contractor, Fallon Interactive, could go to all the trouble to write a player application with selectable audio and video channels, why be just a little bit pregnant? Why not give us the whole shebang – every kind of title, audio, and video track imaginable?

Why go to all that trouble to give us the frills of director commentary and B-stories without giving us basic accessibility first? We need a main course before dessert; offering them in reverse is uncivilised.

<!—CQ this: Keep it as “uncivilised.”—>
<!—We are playing off the piss-elegant British orthography.—>

It’s not as though there wasn’t the money.

According to press accounts, the budget for Ang Lee’s featurette was two mil. (BMW responds that such accounts are exaggerated, and that actual budgets won’t be disclosed.) Lee is merely one of the directors under Hire. Bandwidth costs alone – imagine serving up 100,000 twenty-megabyte streams just for starters – would have fronted Boo.com’s cocaine bill for at least a good month.

Access, broadly defined

And why aren’t we thinking internationally here? Oh, there is the patina of global goodwill, what with hiring directors from five countries (a conservative estimate; Lee and Wong Kar-wai are multinational), but no one seems to have noticed that all the films so far are available in English only. I know BMW makes SUVs and roadsters in South Carolina, but isn’t BMW a German company? Isn’t German a Major World Language? Unlike, say, the Icelanders or the Estonians, who accept that no one else in the universe speaks their native languages, Germans don’t have to learn English to get along in the world. Just how does a unilingual German-speaker understand The Hire? (Even the site itself is English-only, never mind the movies.)

Couldn’t we at least imagine a role for subtitled and dubbed versions of the Hire featurettes?

Press reports (unavailable online) hold that cinema and DVD release of the Hire stable is planned. Wong Kar-wai’s The Follow was screened at the French-speaking Cannes festival, where the official rules demand that films arrive with French subtitling (though, confusingly, English subtitles will be provided by the festival). Isn’t accessibility something that was always on the plate anyway?

So why was it overlooked online, when everyone went to so much trouble to enable director’s commentary and subplots?

Left on the table

After a lot of toing and froing, I eventually coaxed a developer of the BMW Film Player, Jobin Hume at Fallon down in Minnesota, to explain just what gives with being half-pregnant with accessibility. (A useful catchphrase, isn’t it? If you spot someone at a conference wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt emblazoned with “I Am Primed and Ready for Gayness” on the face and “I Am Half-Pregnant with Accessibility” on the obverse, come up and give us a kiss.)

Hume philosophizes:

The player was built for a very specific, and admittedly small, audience – people with high-end computer systems and advanced sound and video cards, the real video- and audiophiles who would be able to simulate the DVD experience…. We didn’t actually “build in” multiple audio tracks. Apple’s QuickTime, which is what the BMW Film Player is based on, includes two tracks. We used one for the main film audio and one for the director’s commentary feature. The director’s commentaries were included in an effort to provide additional content per the objective mentioned above and give the users insight into the directors’ thoughts and ideas during the filmmaking process….

There are many features of the BMWFilms.com experience that we were unable to include in this release due to the tight timeline. We had to table many desired features for future development. One of the things we are investigating for the future is making BMW content more accessible. Whether this is the player or the streaming content, or maybe both, is undetermined at this point. As I mentioned above, the hardware “bar” is pretty high for the player, so it may make more sense for accessibility features to be integrated into the Web site. We are checking out the different options and hope to accommodate as many users as possible into the brand experience.

[W]e are evaluating different options for the next round, and accessiblity issues are on the table.

When pressed for specifics at the corporate policy level, Karen Vonder Meulen, marketing and events communications manager at BMW of North America LLC, provided responses, asked questions, and spoke using nonverbal cues that all showed she took the issue seriously and hoped to learn more.

The entire question of accessibility was new to BMW until I brought it up. Now that they know about it, though, BMW seems willing to provide all the access anyone could want.

“We’ve only done regular commercials before without sound or anything with them,” Vonder Meulen says. “It’s a whole new issue with the closed captioning and that. We tried to think of everything… We didn’t make it closed-caption accessible, but we certainly are investigating ways to do that in the future if we have more films.” (TV commercials for The Hire do contain dialogue; even wordless all-music commercials and music videos can be and are captioned. The soundtrack in totum is embodied in text, not just spoken words.) Vonder Meulen had no comment either way on the topic of retrofitting the existing films in the Hire series.

“I can commit to the DVDs, because that’s something we have control over, I think. We want everyone to enjoy the films. We’ll do what we can to make them accessible.” No specifics were forthcoming, but that may be forgivable owing to the newness of the issue around the proverbial BMW water cooler.

“We agree with you and we are going to make every effort to closed-caption our [online films] and make it so that in the future, if the film series continues, they will be accessible.”

What happened at Cannes? Vonder Meulen explains: “We showed [the film] at the American pavilion at the film festival,” not in competition; it was “just an opportunity to showcase the film.” At the time, no visitors to the pavilion asked about subtitling.

How about a global audience for the online filmclips? It’s intended as a North American campaign, she responds. “It was done with the Internet and the servers here in the United States…. We’re learning as we go and we’re committed to it and we’re committed to doing the right thing,” Vonder Meulen concludes.

Not our market?

All very good news, isn’t it?

You will now stab the dying embers of your fag into an ashtray as you sigh grandly and offer the retort “Yes, OK, internationalism. Localization, whatever. OK. But blind people can’t drive cars, and deaf people are too poor to buy BMWs!”

Well, if the issue at hand were actual cars, you’d have a point. The “product” in question is the online multimedia. BMW has presented The Hire as a collection of films, not a collection of automobiles. That’s been done already, and they’re called Art Cars.

As with captioned music videos, which are cinematic artworks of interest to anyone who can see or hear but not necessarily both, a distinction must be drawn between the putative marketing goal (selling a record, selling a car) and the free-standing medium engaged to do it.

This issue keeps popping up in “conventional” accessibility. The U.S. military is required by §402 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to caption its television commercials even though a deaf or hard-of-hearing person would never be admitted to any branch of the forces. What is the point? The point is information. Ceci n’est pas une pipe and a TV commercial is not military service.

Here are some real-world examples of why an inaccessible entity must be advertised accessibly:

  1. Your hard-of-hearing grandma may want to know what you’re signing up for.
  2. Or you may wish to join the civilian ranks where such disabilities are accommodated.
  3. Or you acknowledge the fact that hearing people are the majority audience of captioning anyway (not merely those watching with the Mute key pressed), and hearing people are not barred from serving in the military.

(Indeed, in a BMWFilmsesque twist, under Section 508, new video segments on GoArmy.com, widely bruited on captioned TV ads I have seen, will have to be accessible if added after 20 June 2001. Some snippets are already offered in Spanish, but the English and Spanish are not translations of each other.)

Besides, in the BMW case, it would be hypocrisy to claim, on the one hand, that The Hire does not constitute product placement (meaning prostitution, meaning vile commerce), but that the films ought not to be made accessible to “undesirable” groups who won’t be buying a BMW anyway.

Do we not also imagine that the kind of prospective BMW drivers who would go to all the trouble to download these Films and watch them on a crappy computer monitor is pretty much limited to Silicon Valley geeks? One wonders why BMW bothers offering Macintosh file and application formats. Geeks like these are full-on Windows apologists.

Or maybe there isn’ta direct link between viewers of The Hire and increased sales. Maybe such a link was never intended. BMW is rich enough to engage in subtle, oblique, soft advertising of this sort. (Think Art Cars.) The entire program buttresses BMW’s reputation for sophistication.

In reality, a BMW Film has a life unto itself, and if you’re calling them Films, then everything involved in film production comes to bear.

Money

Oh, but there’s another problem. Writing the BMW Film Player cost a lot of money. And it’s quite proprietary. (The films are also expensive and proprietary. Gold plating everywhere in this whole enterprise.)

What does this mean?

It means that a ubiquitous, inexpensive, universal media player with all the access features you can eat still does not exist. The BMW Film Player example, to paraphrase Ben Elton, offers a cruel glimpse of an unattainable future where each site has its own custom-built media player with selectable access features (very broadly defined).

Can you afford to write such a player application? Of course not. You do find the occasional l33t h2xor (elite hacker) who writes his own Linux caption decoder, but here in the real world, we mortals depend on standard equipment, which is not up to the job. Neither is the BMW Player, not quite, but by version 3.0 it’s gonna be a showstopper. Or a showstarter: It’s gonna be one case where a proprietary system shows us how industry-standard systems ought to be put together.

But we now know what is possible. Perhaps the future is not unattainable. Perhaps the glimpse BMWFilms gives us is not so cruel after all.

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