Tennis Australia has developed an online audio stream that uses real-time ball tracking technology to create a 3D spatialised audio experience to allow those living with blindness or a vision impairment to follow the sport.
The rollout of the technology, called Action Audio, comes just in time for the Australian Open finals (17-21 February) when it will first be piloted.
Action Audio has been developed by Tennis Australia, Monash University and WPP agency AKQA.
It applies 3D sound design to Tennis Australia’s real-time ball position data to evoke the speed and trajectory of the ball, its proximity to the line, and a player’s shot type, essentially making the ball ‘audible’ to blind audiences.
The technology is designed to make the Australian Open broadcasts accessible for the almost 600,000 people in Australia and 285 million people globally who are living with blindness or a vision impairment.
"For the first time, thousands of blind and visually impaired fans will be able to follow the on-court action in real time, enabled by this ground breaking new use of technology," said Tennis Australia head of innovation Machar Reid.
Action Audio is a co-funded, co-designed project with no commercial gain from any party. It was refined with members of the blind and visually impaired community, including input from Blind Sports Victoria.
Blind Sports Victoria CEO Maurice Gleeson commented: "I think everyone has the right to have as much access as possible. I love tennis, but being totally blind, all I can usually hear is the ball going up and down and then I have to wait for them to announce the result. I’m really looking forward to this next step forward in accessibility."
The hope is that the technology will extend beyond the Australian Open, to support other sports codes and broadcasts around the world. Since it is powered by existing real-time data collection from sports bodies, it "requires very few new tools to implement", said AKQA AUNZ executive creative director Tim Devine. Electronic line calling systems are used at over 80 tennis tournaments worldwide.
Devine said the launch of the technology "opens up sports to potentially millions more fans" and "sets a new bar for inclusion and accessibility" for global sports tournaments.
Tennis Australia has launched several initiatives to make tennis more accessible including an LGBTQIA+ tennis tournament Glam Slam, tailored programs for people who are blind or have low vision, are deaf or hard of hearing, and people with intellectual disabilities or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Tennis Australia's Reid said Action Audio is "a great example of our commitment to expanding access to the game, and making the Australian Open experience as welcoming, safe and inclusive as possible."