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Accessible In Flight Entertainment – Virgin Atlantic and Bluebox Aviation partnership- David Brown, Director of Business Development | http://www.blueboxaviation.com/
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DAVID BROWN: Hi, this is David Brown. I’m the business development director of Bluebox Aviation, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.
WADE WINGLER: Hi, this is Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals crossroads in Indiana with your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs. Welcome to episode number 345. It’s scheduled to be released on January 5, 2018. Happy new year.
Today I have a conversation with David Brown who is the director of business development at Bluebox Aviation. We are going to spend the entire show today talking about the world’s first accessible in-flight entertainment system.
We hope you check out our website at www.eastersealstech.com, sent us a note on Twitter at INDATA Project, or call our listener line at 317-721-7124.
WADE WINGLER: I know a lot of people are just coming off of holiday travels. My guess is if you were on the plane for very long at all, you probably either got a little bit bored or you brought some entertainment, or you sought some entertainment. You can imagine how excited I was when I saw a press release about a new partnership between Bluebox Aviation and Virgin Atlantic about accessible in-flight entertainment. I was super excited when David Brown, who directs business development at Bluebox Aviation in Scotland, decided that he would come on the show and tell us about this new and, I think, groundbreaking project they’re working on.
Joining us via Skype, David, welcome to the show.
DAVID BROWN: Thank you very much, Wade. Pleasure to be on.
WADE WINGLER: Before we talk about accessibility, tell me a little bit about yourself and a little bit about Bluebox Aviation.
DAVID BROWN: Okay. I started a forerunner of Bluebox Aviation back in 2004. What we are is basically a software system house that specializes in software systems for the aviation sector. We work with the world leading suppliers of iPad-based portable in-flight entertainment systems. It’s a bit of a niche we’ve developed pure we have about 25,000 iPads flying about 28 airlines around the world. We are doing some other exciting products, wireless streaming of content in the aircraft as well.
Small company, about 40 of us altogether. We have clients that range from Virgin Atlantic in the UK to Air Canada Rouge, Hawaiian Airlines, a number of airlines in the Far East, as well as fairly widespread here in Scotland.
How we came about the product was that I saw an intro from the chap who ran the in-flight entertainment system in Air Canada quite a few years ago. They had taken the high contrast approach to seatback screens. I thought that was something we could do a little bit more of what our Bluebox product. That’s how it started.
WADE WINGLER: It sounds like on those airlines you mentioned, people might already be familiar with your sort of typical product, but then this accessibility product, is this the first time you or anybody has worked on such a thing?
DAVID BROWN: It is indeed. It became a pet project for me. It was a new experience working with accessibility products. From the basic system, I thought we could do a bit more than that. So I got some of our development team to look into it. We knew the iPads had considerable accessibility features built into them, and we saw the basics of what you might need to make an in-flight entertainment system more usable. That’s where we started. How can we combine a little bit of what we know on the accessibility features built into the iPad and make a really good product? That’s how we started.
What we did is we did a mockup of what we thought might be the right kind of direction using voiceover, high contrast screens, and we quickly realized that we didn’t really know what you’re doing. We just didn’t know enough about the target market and what visually impaired people actually need. That’s when we approach Virgin Atlantic and said, look, you have a lot of our standard iPads at the moment. We know about the regulations coming in to the US. It seems like the right kind of thing to do to try to do something in this area to make the long journeys more bearable, shall we say, especially for visually impaired people. After all, that’s what in-flight entertainment is all about, keeping the boredom levels at minimum levels for long flights.
Virgin Atlantic had a long-standing relationship with the UK Guide Dogs for the Blind. They asked them if they would be interested in supporting us, and they were super keen to do that. We started off with a workshop session with about 10 to 12 people from the Guide Dogs Association on the Virgin Atlantic premises down in London. We showed them what we had done, and we were overwhelmed by feedback. We quickly realized it was not a case of one size fits all in terms of giving a visually accessible interface. What we were faced with range from people with the ability to ZoomText was how they went about their normal day-to-day lives of people with very minimal site capability to complete blindness. We had a range of opinions from voiceover to being able to speak out the lines as the only way they could communicate with a screen or system to one that said they hated it and it gets in the way. That’s the kind of quandary we were faced with. We took all the feedback and started working a lot harder on the system and then came back a couple of months later with a second iteration of the product. The group that we had from the UK Guide Dogs for the Blind were delighted with what we had done. That’s how it started. With a little bit of polish, we’ve ended up with a product that everyone seems to be very pleased with and is actually flying with Virgin Atlantic.
WADE WINGLER: I can tell you how many times I have guest on the show, and they say the reason for creating some sort of accessibility or assistive technology based product is because they knew somebody or met somebody who had that need. But a lot of them don’t do what you did, which I think is really important, which is a lot of user research and getting the perspective. You are right. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution in this sector. Kudos for doing that.
DAVID BROWN: Thanks. We were quite amazed by that kind of feedback that we got because we thought that’s the normal way we do business. We don’t just invent things because we think it is the right way to do it. It was quite staggering that that was the common theme from the user group. You’ve actually listened to us and then what we do ask you to do. We are amazed. Then we say that’s just what we do. It was very satisfying and gratifying to hear that kind of thing.
WADE WINGLER: It’s been my experience that if you gather a group of people who are blind or visually impaired and ask for their input on accessibility, they are ready for the challenge. They’ll tell you.
DAVID BROWN: Absolutely. That’s right.
WADE WINGLER: Let’s talk accessibility specifics. What did you come up with? Talk to me about the current product and what are the accessibility specifics?
DAVID BROWN: I’ll try to keep it very simple. The most obvious feature is of course black and white, very large characters on the screen, black and white areas, consistent approach to where back buttons, home buttons are, the right-hand side of the screen. So if you have any vision at all, you’ll know the big blobs that you see on the right-hand side of the screen are the control buttons. Very big squares to define whether it is movies, TV, very simple menu system. And the ability to zoom on any of those items on screen as well. That satisfies the group that would prefer to use the zoom and make the text much larger.[Inaudible] which we can switch on and off is the voiceover. Every line of text or item of text on the screen will speak out the contents of the line, which again we are exploiting the Apple technology, and is very good on that. The ability to program our software using that feature was great. The other things was the iPads we provide our single-purpose devices. We lock them down so that they are purely an in-flight entertainment device, which from an accessibility point of view, you can’t hit the wrong button and get lost back into the native Apple operating system. That was a strong comment from the group as well, that it is great you can’t go wrong, you can’t do too much damage. Navigation while in system was important to keep simple. Of course, what we are able to do, because it is effectively a dedicated device, once you select a film, it will then automatically read out a synopsis of the description that we put into the system, so you get a bit more information so that you can choose whether to view that or move on to the next category.
Of course, want to get to the actual content item, once it is movies, TV, audio, games, we are more hands off the actual content. The big push at the moment is to have more audio described movies. They seem to be in relatively short supply from the movie studios. Where available, we certainly provide it, and airlines like Virgin Atlantic do get as much audio described content as they can onboard their systems. They combined it with an interface that vision impaired people can use easily, it seems to be a big step forward.
WADE WINGLER: Tell me a little bit about the user experience from a learning curve perspective. If somebody is on a flight, and they are identified as somebody who needs the accessible in-flight entertainment experience, or they identify themselves, how do they learn to use the system? Can they get help? Is it difficult to learn?
DAVID BROWN: Definitely not difficult to learn. One of the feedbacks we got from the group was Apple devices in particular, but more generally tablets and apps that have come a long have been a great boon and ways of life for these folks. We are building on something that they seem to be relatively familiar with, so we are not dealing with a completely alien technology. However, as you know, tablets and things like that are inherently easy to use, but one of the things that came across very quickly we honestly didn’t realize was that touchscreen technology, while dead easy to use, is extremely difficult for a visually impaired person because there is no hard clues as to where the control buttons are and things like that, like you did even on a remote control type device. That was a problem area.
The idea would be an airline crew would switch on the device – the app is loaded up. The first screen you touch is a set of instructions, so the first line of the screen says it swept left or right anywhere on the screen to get the next the menu item. As soon as you swipe left or right, it moves on to the next one and says volume controls are X, Y, or Z here, tap twice to move on to the next content item. We read out the instructions. So that’s the first page, four or five simple instructions on how the unit operates. That was certainly a message that came across loud and clear. We want to be treated the same as every passenger. We don’t want to have to poke the next person and ask how to do this, or call the cabin crew. We want independence and the ability to use the device on our own. That’s where we seem to have been able to achieve quite successfully, very easy to navigate. It starts with the instructions and it is very difficult to get lost once you are in the system because everything is read out, and we don’t allow the ability to escape the actual application which is probably helpful.
WADE WINGLER: It’s been my experience when we talk about assistive or accessible technology that there is a human element that is sometimes tricky to deal with. I’m imagining an in-flight staff person in dealing with a lot of things. Have they been trained on the accessibility features of this? What has their response been? I’ve seen situations where people are like, I know how to do the regular stuff, but this accessible thing freaks me out a little bit. Has that been your experience at all?
DAVID BROWN: It was another radio interview I was doing. The chap that was earning the radio station was totally blind. He and his wife had been on a trip over to the US just this past summer on two different airlines. I won’t name them. He said they were quite encouraged. His wife said, look on the system, there is some audio descriptive content. They played about and couldn’t find out how to get into it. The call the cabin crew over, and in two different flights, two different airlines, the cabin crew member couldn’t work out the way to get to the audio descriptive content. I thought that was a bit of a shocker and surprise. It just shows you the kind of issues that have been faced by visually impaired people on a day-to-day basis. That feels as though it is a token effort that is being put on there, but nobody knows how to use it.
Virgin Atlantic, I must admit, have taken a different approach. They’ve been super keen because they are the world’s first on being able to provide equivalent in-flight entertainment on every flight for passengers. We’ve had cabin crew involved in the workshop sessions and familiarization with it. I know they are going through training on that. It is minimal. They are already familiar with the iPads because they’ve been curing them on the aircraft for a couple of years, and they are delighted that we’ve got something special here with accessibility features.
We kept it easy. We haven’t done anything like taking the standard iPad and switching it to accessibility mode. Virgin has dedicated a quantity of their iPads, and we’ve converted them into accessibility mode so it is very simple and the crew know how to switch them on. All they have to do is make sure they are in the right mode, provide earphones and give a quick explanation. That’s the feedback we’ve had from our user group, is that it just works and they can navigate with complete independence. That seems to be a very big plus.
WADE WINGLER: We’ve alluded to the issues of, that a little bit. Content on these accessible devices is the same as all other passengers? Or are there limitations?
DAVID BROWN: It’s the same as what we’ve got on the other iPads. The other iPads are designed for service recovery if there is any feedback videos broken, if you like. Exactly the same content, the only constraint being the iPads have more content-side limitation in some of the feedback systems. I think it’s about 95 percent of the same content. It is certainly not limited by accessibility. It’s more limited by just the physical capacity of the iPad, which is 128 gigabytes, so there are about 60 or 70 movies and TV shows and audio and games at the moment. Some of the content may not be particularly accessible, but as we said, that’s more and industrywide challenge. Certainly we’ve given a platform that is very usable for any type of content that would be required and is larger as what we’ve got on the feedback systems.
WADE WINGLER: In our pre-interview chat, you imagine you are doing advocacy to try to increase the amount of accessible content and described video, right?
DAVID BROWN: Absolutely. That was another reason for getting into this. One of my colleagues sits on our industry body tech committee, APEX, Airline Passenger Experience Association. We know a large part of their work over recent years has been working with Department of transport in the US on forthcoming regulations on proving accessibility on airlines. It’s been a big issue. The prime focus has been hard of hearing disabilities. Of course, having subtitles on screens has never been an issue for us because you can select subtitles fairly easily. Some of the older systems struggle with subtitles so there’s been that.
Closely following on the hard of hearing part is the visual impairment rules that are coming along fast as well. That’s where we’ve had a big advantage in terms of we have a platform that we know we can take advantage of the features of the technology. We do feel as though we have a platform that is absolutely ideal, easy for airlines to deploy. All we are saying is don’t bother trying to update the feedback systems, which is extremely complex and expensive to do. Just carry a few tablets that are configured specifically for the job. We can keep the content synchronized with all the other content you have on board your system and make it available.
Crudely, we are ahead of the game and have been able to comply with the regulations. That’s not something that was our prime aim, but that seems to have gone a lot of attention from my industry colleagues. Some on a panel in January specifically on accessibility, and the latest updates who were invited to speak on that and show what we’ve done. These kinds of committees, the major Hollywood studios are big attendees on these things. One of the things I’ll be hoping to plug is that guys, you might have held back on audio descriptive content until now because there has not really been many platforms that could use it or export it, whereas now here is a great platform that we can use to have audio descriptive content and it works.
Once you get a certain volume and then it can be used, airlines will certainly want to take it and hopefully that will encourage more audio descriptive content to be produced.
WADE WINGLER: What are the airlines saying? What are the passengers saying? These are in the air being used now, right?
DAVID BROWN: Indeed, yes. Since the first of December, Virgin Atlantic has been flying with these available for anybody to use. Normally I think – I’ve forgotten the number of passengers they carry every year. It was many thousands of vision impaired passengers that they carry every year. At the time of booking, they are normally notified of that and therefore they will know that the passengers are coming aboard that may want to use the special iPads. Otherwise, they do carry them on every flight because it is easier logistically to know there are some onboard for this stuff. We haven’t had the actual feedback as yet, but we are eagerly awaiting that it will probably get that at the end of the year as these crew reports come in. We are looking forward to hearing how they’ve been used in any feedback from then. Virgin Atlantic is very good at capturing feedback from users. We have a group of users that have been working with us that are keen to volunteer to go on Virgin Atlantic flight to some of these exotic places to try them out. Haven’t heard yet on feedback, but we are optimistic and delighted to share some of it with you when we get it.
WADE WINGLER: I would love to do that. Until that feedback, this question may be a little premature. What are your future plans for the accessible product? Are there gaps you know you want to try to fill? Is there expansion you know you want to do in terms of accessibility for future iterations?
DAVID BROWN: Absolutely. We are looking at adding more accessibility features into our later products, wireless streaming products that we are doing. The different approach is streaming out content to passengers own devices. In the near future, we would hope to be able to offer similar capabilities to trigger in the likes of voiceover on passengers own devices. That has become a much more common feature of many airlines. It’s a very attractive way to give out in-flight entertainment on airlines. We will be adding some to that. Of course we are as keen to get feedback on the system as well to see where improvements are needed.
It’s a tricky one, not having many visually impaired in the organization, that is our only way of assessing that has been through the workshops. There will be nothing like getting that real feedback from passengers actually using it. We’ve got a dedicated support team for our iPad products. Because the software is done in-house, we can make any changes, additions, if somebody comes up with ideas. We pride ourselves that once we produce a product, we support it for the life of the product out in the field. We do that on all our other products and that is exactly what we will do with this one.
We do expect a lot of airlines will be interested as the word gets out. We already have a few of the major ones wanting more details on it. It’s going to be an exciting 2018 for the product.
WADE WINGLER: Let’s assume that there are airline executives in our audience who want to reach out to you or users of assistive technology that want to learn more about what Bluebox is doing. How would they reach out to you? How would they learn more? Is there a website address?
DAVID BROWN: Any time, just going to BlueboxAviation.com. Email is info@BlueboxAviation.com, another easy way to get in touch with us. My personal email is dbrown@BlueboxAviation.com. We would be delighted. The more information we can get, the better the product we can make over the coming years.
WADE WINGLER: David Brown is the director of business development at Bluebox Aviation where a new partnership with Virgin Atlantic Airlines is changing the face of how in-flight Internet works for people who are blind or visually impaired or use assistive technology. Thank you so much for being in our show today.
DAVID BROWN: You’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
WADE WINGLER: Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? Call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Looking for a transcript or show notes from today’s show? Head on over to www.EasterSealstech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. Find more shows like this plus much more over at AccessibilityChannel.com. That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana.
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