Transforming Digital Art & Experience In The Multiverse

Blind person using audio player for visually impaired, listening to audio on his computer.

by Chris Hainsworth

How do you dive into the Immediacy and Serendipity of the Burning Man Multiverse when your eyes function differently?

Burning Man culture invites us to place ourselves in strange situations and crazy constraints, to express ourselves with immediacy and a spirit of gifting and communal effort.

How do these principles survive when our community’s magic is created without a visually impaired perspective in mind?

The Multiverse

In this year of the Multiverse, when our transformative experiences have migrated online, and we are all missing human touch, we feel this issue acutely.

Our primary goal at Blind Burners this year is to help make as much of the digital Burning Man universe accessible to Blind Burners.

We call on our community of designers and builders to join us in this mission.

Layers of Accessibility

Let’s look at the layers of information that comprise our journey to a Burning Man event:

1.  Awareness – the Websites, Facebook posts, JRS and other emails that disseminate information on “what, where, when”.

2.  Registration  – the signup process, activation of a confirmation email, purchase of a ticket, download and installation of software, potentially needing two screens for optimal interactive experience,, a number of emails including further links and passwords.

3.  Entry Portal –we have seen portals ranging from 2D maps to tables of Zoom links. We imagine there may be many more user interfaces in development

4.  Experience – We’ve seen exquisite performances on Zoom, we’ve hosted our own virtual campfire providing “Silly & Soulful Songs, Audio-Described Cabaret”, and we’ve drawn people into our world of describing things aurally and discussing our experience as Blind Burners

Now imagine going through that as a blind or partially sighted person, i.e. a VIP Burner. 

How does a Visually Impaired Person “read” the internet?

Lesson one, we are all different.

Some people are partially sighted and can make out text if printed in large print, in a clear font, with few or no graphical distractions.

Others may see areas of colour and sources of light.

Some people are born blind or become blind at an early age. Some lose their sight as adults. For some the transition may be gradual, for others it can be sudden.

Screen Readers

Many Blind Burners use screen reader software to “read” web pages and emails.

When websites are created in an accessible manner, the text in websites can be as accessible to a blind person as it is to someone sighted. This is as easy to achieve in practice as it is fundamental to a Visually Impaired Person’s ability to take part in our culture.

However there are many pitfalls which can make websites inaccessible to screen readers and to Blind Burners.

For example, text embedded in a graphical image is not accessible to a screen reader.

And pop-ups are normally a fatal blow, as the screen reader cannot determine whether the user is “in” the main screen or the pop-up.

This issue has impacted recent virtual burns. Fortunately we were able to reach the organisers of the event affected, and within three hours the issue was fixed.

For a really clear example of how screen readers work, please see this video recorded for the BBC by one of our Founding Burners, Adil Latif https://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/en/articles/art20190905140946340

Accessible Design & Text

Many Blind Burners with some vision read websites as we do, but only when basic design elements are sufficiently clear. Top tips:

  • Keep everything simple.
  • Black text on a white background, or vice versa
  • Simple fonts such as arial. Bold, no curves and “squigglies”.
  • No background images
  • No pop-ups
  • Just the text.

Another option is to have audio recordings providing a guide to the site, highlighting where different submission forms are, which are accessible and which may present issues to VIPs.

Accessible Design & Navigation Systems

If possible, structure links to be as direct as possible, minimising the number of steps required to navigate a sign-up process or experience.

And minimise IDs and passwords. We get why they are necessary, but please keep it clear and simple.

Improving signup processes benefits everyone by reducing barriers to participation.

Independence and agency in a Visually Impaired Digital Burn

Accessible websites are, however, the first rung of the ladder.

The key to us is to restore a VIP Burner’s independence, their agency, their ability to find their way.

When we read of Arthur Mamou Mani’s Cascadia, our first thought after “WOW” was “how can we make this experience accessible to Blind Burners?”

Design Solutions

Design solutions will vary according to the nature of the experience.

3D Printing

At a physical Burn, an ideal solution to something as huge and intricate as a temple or man base would be to construct a scale model that the VIP can touch.

With a little planning, might local Burner groups utilise 3D printers to create small models that can be held by VIPs?

Pre-Rec Audio Descriptions

For many experiences, audio descriptions may provide a decent and easy-to-achieve solution.

In a digital burn, exquisite descriptions of whatever is being built or projected may go a long way to opening up these experiences to VIPs.

But what about the 3D worlds being constructed? Might it be possible to create audio descriptions of corridors and spaces that include audio descriptions to enable a VIP to explore a 3D virtual environment? Our artists have access to leading engineers. How beautiful would it be to harness the energies and talents of these people to prove that 3D “game” or even “VR” environments can be made accessible to all, no matter how their eyes work?

Live Docents Trained to Guide VIPs

Might we include digital avatars of real humans in each performance space, to be on hand for VIPS who can raise their hand to request a description?

The solutions can be as ambitious or easy as the Artist/Builder feels able to accommodate. We recognize that with just over two months’ to go until digital BRC 2020, pressure is already on.

VIPs do have other tools at our fingertips which we can use to assist. For example “Be My Eyes” enables a VIP to access a global community of volunteers who respond to requests for help which they provide by taking over the VIP’s camera phone. We’ve been delighted at the response of those strangers who have discovered Burning Man culture online through being our eyes. Many couldn’t believe what they saw. Otherwise told us they weren’t comfortable describing what they saw. To each their own!

Sensorial Enhancements

What about experiences that major on non-visual stimuli? How can we create accessible experiences that utilise sound, or self-touch/remote-touch, or scents, to draw our VIP Burners into an experience, enabling them to chart an independent path through the world.

Our Ask

We believe that all it takes is a thirty minute conversation between an Artist/Builder and our VIP members.

We are convinced that this will be enough to discover together a range of design solutions, ranging from the rudimentary/sophisticated, complex/simple, time-intensive/resource-light.

And we are convinced that each person will exit this conversation with their perspective enhanced.

We hope at the very least to ensure that the first three rungs of the ladder – Awareness, Registration and Entry Portal- of all digital Burning Man events are 100% accessible to VIPs.

We hope to inspire our Builders and Artists to challenge themselves to consider how small changes might open up their work to a new audience.

Find us in a Virtual Burn near you

And we hope to see some of you in one one of our performance spaces.

We plan to gift guitar meditations, distanced Indian head massage, audio-described cabaret and burlesque, and playful discussions around art, experience and accessibility.

If you’d like us to host one of our “campfires” in your virtual Burn, give us a holla!

Please reach out to us on Facebook at our group Blind Burners, or email us at [email protected]. We’re working on our website but wanted to get our comms started now.

Resources

Many resources are available online.

A good place to start is https://www.w3.org/WAI/which is an initiative to develop standards and support materials to help people understand and implement accessibility.