Converting space images into sound empowers visually-impaired individuals

Translating images captured by telescopes into sounds has been found to improve trust and access among visually-impaired persons, along with promoting awareness about accessibility, according to a new research in the US.

The research found that such translations of the visual to the audio, or sonification, helped people access and engage with the Universe.

Astronomical telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope, capture light coming from various cosmic sources like stars and galaxies in the form of X-rays and infrared, both invisible to the human eye.

These different kinds of light are transmitted to Earth in digital form — ones and zeroes — and then converted into varied formats, including plots, spectra and images.

NASA’s Universe of Sound data sonification program translates the visual data of images of objects in space into sound signals or sonified data. Images produced by all of the US space agency’s telescopes, including Chandra, Webb, the Hubble Space Telescope and others are converted.

Astronomy has historically prioritised visuals to present information, with scientists and communicators overlooking the critical need to communicate astrophysics with visually-impaired audiences and provide novel channels for sighted audiences to process scientific information, researchers said in their study published in the journal Frontiers in Communication’.

The team included researchers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, US.

In this study, the researchers sonified NASA data of three astronomical objects. They then surveyed close to 3,200 from three groups — sighted, people with partial vision and blind — on their experience of these audio pieces with regards to “enjoyment, education, and trust of the scientific data”.

Analysing the participants’ responses, the team found that the audio translations of telescope images yielded “significant” learning gains and positive experiences.

The results showed that “astrophysical data engaging multiple senses could establish additional avenues of trust, increase access, and promote awareness of accessibility in sighted and blind or low-vision communities, the researchers stated in their study.

The hope is that sonification can help communicate the scientific discoveries from our Universe with more audiences, and open the door to the cosmos just a little wider for everyone, they said.