Robert Sawatzky
May 27, 2024

How JBL's brief to prove sound superiority brought gaming to the visually impaired

‘We didn’t know if this was possible’: By spurning the easy campaign route, the Singapore-based BLKJ Havas team chose to pioneer gaming accessibility for a new audience and brand alike with JBL Quantum Guide Play.

Sophie Soon practices Counter-Strike in the JBL Quantum Guide Play training area.
Sophie Soon practices Counter-Strike in the JBL Quantum Guide Play training area.

I’m out of my element. I have a gun and I’m walking down an abandoned alley with danger lurking all around me. Moving into a darkened passage I can hear my footsteps moving me forward. I know my team is not far off. I can hear them. I need to swerve around a large object. I can’t see it, but I know it’s right in front of me. Then, the adrenaline surges as my enemy sneaks into my field of play from behind. They are about 10 metres behind, over my right shoulder. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there – exactly how far away. I can hear them getting closer, but it’s more like I can feel them getting closer, like my ‘spidey-sense’ tingling.  

Fortunately for me, this isn’t a real-world situation. I’m in an agency office in Singapore, home to BLKJ Havas, where account director Boon Ng is guiding me through the features of JBL Quantum Guide Play, their award-winning gaming technology created for client Harman International. The demo might be hopelessly lost on bumbling first-person shooter (FPS) fodder like me, were it not for the new sensory experience it provides me as the player, a similar sensation to the first time one tries out VR goggles.  

Feeling like a fish out of water isn’t wholly inappropriate. The technology was never designed for someone like me. It’s made for the visually impaired to allow them to play FPS games based wholly on sound cues. Moreover, it does so on behalf of a brand that never specifically catered to the gaming community or the visually impaired, until now.  

“Without spatial audio, this wouldn’t be possible,” enthuses Guilherme Machado, BLKJ Havas’ executive creative director behind the project. 

JBL Quantum Guide Play - Launch Film (Audio Description) from BLKJ Havas on Vimeo.

So how did Harman, the company behind the JBL headphone brand, known for its lifestyle products but little-known in the gaming world, come to hire a Singapore agency to work with developers in the Americas to bring FPS gaming to the visually impaired?

As it always does in this industry—with a brief.  

Answering the brief the hard way

As Machado explains it, the brief for JBL Quantum, Harman’s foray into gaming headgear, was really simple: “It was to show that they’re the best when it comes to sound. And what better way to do that than to help those who can only play through sound,” he says. “It was the perfect product demo.”  

“Kudos to the clients, really, because any project that takes an innovative leap takes a lot of guts,” says Skanda Lokeshwaran, strategy director at BLKJ Havas. “Something the category would [normally] do for a brief like this would be [a video with] sexy shots of the headphones, with graphics of soundwaves coming out and then maybe they would get an influencer to talk about how great the sound is.” 

But the team knew—as most teams often do but capitulate anyway—that while a typical campaign would be safer, easier and cheaper, it wouldn’t truly be able to cut through the clutter in the gaming headphone space, where JBL was only starting to gain affinity. Nor would it truly make a tangible difference to improving gaming inclusivity. Instead, the team opted for the more ambitious, risky and expensive route of building an audio avenue into gaming for the visually impaired.   

The client liked the idea too. “Our immediate reaction was a mix of excitement and curiosity,” says Yeeling Lee, the senior director for Asia consumer marketing at Harman International. “The idea of merging JBL Quantum audio technology with this new solution sounded incredibly innovative.”   

But while the client leader says Harman was “intrigued by the potential” with a sense of “cautious optimism,” she also admits that “being one of the first to launch such an initiative, there were of course challenges along the way.” 

One pesky little problem, in fact, confronted them from the start. “We didn’t know if it was actually possible,” says Machado. 

Help, trial and error

The early beginnings involved research and finding expertise, as it usually does. Initial research had begun in early 2022 but it wasn’t until specialist partners were brought on board in the second half of 2023 that technology explorations and development started in earnest. One of these partners is Bolha, a creative technology studio in Sao Paulo that has helped many big brands like Schweppes, Dell and Ford create new hardware to assist with daily tasks, including some to aid those with disabilities. Machado, who is Brazilian, struck up a good relationship and gained their enthusiasm from the start.  

By September 2023, the team had also leveraged the help of AbleGamers, a US-based non-profit that aims to help break the isolation of the disabled through game play. AbleGamers estimates that some 50 million visually impaired people globally want access to gaming like first-person shooter games that have been thus far inaccessible to them. 

Working with AbleGamers Brazil and Bolha, BLKJ Havas developed an early prototype by November 2023 that proved the concept was possible, which garnered further buy-in and investment from the client. But whether they could develop it to the point of real-life usage was still yet to be proven.  

Enlisting the help of a visually impaired sound engineer working with the Brazilian developers, they started moving through all aspects of game play to test and try what worked using Counter-Strike 2, the most popular freely available FPS game. 

Not being visually impaired themselves limited the type of practical input Machado and his team could provide. “It’s not like you can close your eyes and try to play,” Machado says. “It doesn’t work like that.”   

Across oceans, the creative and development teams tried to figure out the answers to key considerations. “Can we do a sound to tell you what the obstacle is? Can we do a sound aim alert?,” Machado recalls. Given how fast-paced game action can be, the teams had to account for how enemy players in one spot might pivot to another in a split second. Could sound alerts actually keep up with movements? And just as important, could they do so with data processing speeds faster than the game itself without overloading and crashing the game? 

“There were moments where we thought it’s not going to work,” Machado says. Some features like the aim alert might function, but not effectively and practically enough for a launch. Progress meetings would be cancelled for weeks as Bolha worked through the technical issues and painstakingly solved them one by one.  

When the product finally got to the stage where it was tested by three visually impaired gamers, Machado immediately noticed that one player was continually getting stuck. His heart sunk. Expecting negative feedback, he was shocked to hear the gamer say he felt he’d be able to play like everyone else if he kept practicing. As it turned out, he was deliberately stopping his play during the trial to test out the features. 

“That was the moment we finally felt it was working,” Machado says.  

In the end, some fourteen different sound alerts were created to signal things like enemy positions, incoming damage and team proximity. To most, the initial cacophony one can hear during Guide Play can be overwhelming and annoying. But players have the option to turn some cues off and most quickly adjust to the barrage of sounds.  

Putting Guide Play to the test in Singapore, the team allowed visually impaired gamers Josh Tseng and Sophie Soon to test the technology for a few days before bringing them together with a trial filmed during team play. Soon, who is also a paralympic athlete, told the team she was impressed by how meticulously aspects like the training map and menus had been thought through, adding: “I believe gaming is now a real possibility for me.” 

“It feels really nice to be included,” said Tseng, a digital accessibility specialist, who was heard telling team members “there’s an enemy on my left” during the multiplayer trial.    

“It feels really nice to be included,” said Tseng, a digital accessibility specialist, who was heard telling team members “there’s an enemy on my left” during the multiplayer trial.    

Although it might still be difficult for visually impaired gamers to excel or storm the leaderboard on FPS games, the fact that they can participate, contribute with a few kills and generally enjoy themselves makes the effort worthwhile, Machado says.  

Josh Tseng trains using JBL Quantum Guide Play

Where Guide Play goes from here

By the time the final version of Guide Play software launched in January 2024, two years in the making, it was the nineteenth iteration of the software. Some 1,000 gamers in selected countries could use it to play Counterstrike 2. It worked.  

By March 2024, the project earned BLKJ Havas the Grand Prix at Spikes Asia in the Radio and Audio category, a potential prelude to global recognition at Cannes Lions and had picked up medals at the One Show and Clios.  

After an emotional film and award wins, most campaign stories in this industry end here. But is a project allowing a thousand gamers the chance to play one specific game really a difference-maker? 

Currently, Guide Play is only compatible with Counter-Strike 2. Yet that was a deliberate choice. Initially, the team had a debate about whether to work with a game developer like Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard to create and embed the software in their games. But that presented further challenges as to who would own the project. Would JBL be lost in the mix? 

Much more importantly, however, was the question of accessibility. The team didn’t want to limit access to the games of one developer. They chose Counter-Strike because it was the most popular FPS game free to all. They then developed Guide Play as open-source software (which had further complicated development), which in turn was made freely available in March 2024. It is now their hope that the Guide Play software will now be adopted and widely integrated by other games and developers. 

"JBL Quantum Guide Play is just a first step towards accessibility in FPS games,” recognises Grace Koh, vice president and general manager of consumer audio at Harman Asia Pacific. “We are making it open-source and hoping that brands and developers can adopt it for their games and even contribute to its improvement." 

In many ways then, the success of Guide Play for Harman’s JBL brand might still be undetermined. The returns on page visits, film views, software downloads, buzz and brand perception among gamers are all still being calculated.  

Yet, Yeeling Lee at Harman International argues the campaign has already exceeded expectations in how it fit their brand challenge: “This initiative has helped to level the playing field to enable visually impaired gamers to ‘compete and connect’, reinforcing our new gaming ethos. The initiative stayed true to the essence of the JBL Quantum brand – delivering cutting edge audio technology and pushing boundaries... but also demonstrated our commitment to inclusivity.” 

Meanwhile, BLKJ Havas CEO Rowena Bhagchandani says being able to take on memorable, difference-making work has built trust with their client and improves the quality of work that they can deliver with Harman over time. 

Machado agrees. “They understood that what you need might not be what you’ve been doing. It might be something completely different,” he says. “For us as an agency it was really good to hear that.” 

Source:
Campaign Asia

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