Eye-gouging accessibility

Now, if you will permit us to giddyup one of our hobbyhorses for a moment, we would like to place something in the record about the general hideousness of online captioning typography.

“Wh-wh-wha’?” you blubber, doing a triple-take. Yes, dear friends, while online video may be its own punchline (it’s still too small and jumpy five years into the game), you still need to make it accessible. Everyone pretty much assumes that means accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, and we’ll humour those people for the time being. (You think blind people aren’t interested in online video? And isn’t online captioning most useful for people stuck in offices with crappy speakerless Windows clones – or trapped in an office where you don’t want the boss to hear the video you’re watching?)

Every available captioning method is crap. Indeed, every available method fails to be better than reality, if we may quote our favourite usability “super-expert.”

What is the reality, then? Crappy Line 21 TV closed captions and (generally) crappy DVD bitmaps. (World System Teletext captions in PAL-format countries are also pretty awful, but we don’t have adequate pictures to show you. There pretty much are no adequate pictures, an admission of the deplorable appearance of WST captions. Nobody wants the truth to be widely displayed.)

Line 21 captions
Line 21 captions (1)
DVD subtitles

Care to compare both at once? On Region 1 DVDs, you can.

Line 21 captions vs. DVD subtitles
Line 21 captions vs. DVD subpictures

Still no better than reality?

So how are things different online?

Well, start with the fact that the three dominant online video players – QuickTime, Real, and WiMP – all theoretically “support” captioning, but the exact meaning of “support” is critical here. All three players can display captions. The problem is getting the captions into the players.

All these players, after years of development, flub even rudimentary text-handling primitives like alignment. You can’t even right-align text reliably in all three players. You’ve been able to do that on TV in North America since 1985.

You can set various type parameters, like colour, font, and size, but since we’re almost always dealing with type 14 or fewer pixels high, results are not great even when you try to use oddball fonts.

It ain’t pretty

So what does the state of the art look like? Behold the widest collection of available samples. Don’t say we don’t work for yez here at NUblog. And, yeah, we’ll include subtitles here – because we’re feeling generous, and because the same technologies are used with the same typographic atrocities.

QuickTime (“Suction Cups” [.mov])
Suction Cup sample
QuickTime (Introduction to the Screen Reader)
‘Intro to the Screen Reader’ example
QuickTime (UVM)
UVM sample
QuickTime (“Volt: The Conversation/The Chase” English subtitles [fan page])
‘Volt’ sample
QuickTime (“Mango Blue” [.mov]; larger view):
‘Mango Blue’ sample
QuickTime (DeafPlanet; very long larger version):
DeafPlanet sample
Flash (“Zoot Suit Riot”; larger view)
‘Zoot Suit Riot’ sample
RealPlayer (Bunnyfoot):
Bunnyfoot example
RealPlayer (CBC News decoded Line 21 captions):
CBC sample
RealPlayer (EEOC Spanish subtitles):
EEOC sample

Anything we’re missing?

Undetectable in these still images are two factors crucial to comprehension:

These issues are generally flubbed in online captioning, and often flubbed in other media.

But we don’t want to write a how-to manual or anything.

Posted on 2002-05-20