On August 21, 2017, millions of people will view a total solar eclipse as it passes through the United States. However, for the visually impaired, or others who are unable to see the eclipse with their own eyes, the Eclipse Soundscapes Project delivers a multisensory experience of this exciting celestial event. The project, from NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium, will include audio descriptions of the eclipse in real time, recordings of the changing environmental sounds during the eclipse, and an interactive “rumble map” app that will allow users to visualize the eclipse through touch.
The idea for Eclipse Soundscapes came from Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA with a penchant for scientific engagement projects. Winter noticed a deficit in accessibility while building a solar wall exhibits for museums. He observed that some “accessible” exhibits merely included the item’s name in braille, while other exhibits — including his own — had no accessibility component at all. Winter began to brainstorm an astrophysics project that would use a multisensory approach to engage a larger percentage of the population, including the visually impaired community. The “Great American Eclipse” of August 2017 seemed like the perfect opportunity.
For individuals who cannot see, hearing is an ideal way to experience the eclipse, since soundscapes change dramatically as the Moon passes between the Earth and Sun. Due to the change in light, nocturnal animals stir into action, while diurnal animals settle. As the Sun’s light re-emerges, it often triggers a “false dawn chorus.”
Eclipse Soundscapes is working with organizations such as the National Park Service (NPS), Science Friday, and Brigham Young University, Idaho, to record these auditory fluctuations. Many of these recordings will use microphone arrays that simulate human hearing, creating a sensation of 3D sound for listeners.
Of course, these recordings will not be available until after the eclipse, but visually impaired individuals can enjoy the August 21 event with the Eclipse Soundscapes app, which will include a narration of the eclipse’s progression in real time using specialized imagery description techniques developed by WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM). Eclipse Soundscapes’ app will geolocate the user and start the narration to align with the planetary movements as they occur.
TOUCH THE SUN
The Eclipse Soundscapes’ app also features an interactive “rumble map,” which uses a smartphone’s touch screen and vibrational feedback to demonstrate the physical qualities of an eclipse. The rumble map displays photos of the eclipse at various stages. When users touch the image, the app reads the greyscale value of a pixel underneath their finger, and vibrates the phone with a strength relative to the brightness of the section. As users move their fingers around the Sun, their smartphone will vibrate more. As they move their fingers into the dark spaces blocked by the Moon, the vibration will diminish and disappear.
With these tools, the Eclipse Soundscapes team hopes to provide visually impaired individuals with a variety of resources to explore the eclipse on their own — and maybe even learn something that their sighted peers could not through visuals alone.
Although the August 21 eclipse will only last for a few hours from beginning to end, the information collected through the Eclipse Soundscapes app will live on as an open source primary documentation of this historic event, and as a model for making science accessible for all. The team aims to continue their efforts for upcoming total solar eclipses, including one in Chile in 2019, and another that will visit the central United States in April 2024.