Action Audio was developed by Tennis Australia, Monash University and the design and innovation company AKQA. The tool takes visual, spatial data from the tennis court and converts it into audio.
Taking their cue from blind tennis, in which a tennis ball often contains beads to make it rattle or jingle, Action Audio uses different sounds to represent different elements of the game.
Listening to a tennis match, a blip will sound each time the ball hits the ground, with the sound in your left or right ear depending on where the ball is. The more blips you hear the closer the ball is to the perimeter of the court and as the ball sails through the air, a listener will hear a jingling bell sound with a high pitch for forehands and a low pitch for backhands.
AKQA executive innovation director Tim Devine said the tool has done lots of testing with the blind and low vision community to ensure what was created was meaningful.
“It’s about information on a simple level, and it’s about empowerment as well. It’s about creating another information layer that allows blind [people] or someone with low vision to make their assessments about what’s happening in the game,” Mr Devine said.
“That’s the richest experience we can have as humans and that’s what makes it more social as well. If you don’t have that information layer that allows you to kind of abstract that out, then you miss out on the ability to kind of participate in the dialogue around the game.”
Mr Reid said the need for these tools has existed for a long time, but technology is making it easier and more possible to scale quickly.
“I remember in 2001, I was sitting courtside in Italy. It was a junior event, and two seats up from me was [Italian operatic tenor] Andrea Bocelli. He’s a passionate tennis fan but he essentially had a friend commentating the match for him,” he said.
“This has been something we’ve wrestled with as a community for a long period of time. We’ve forever been seeking opportunities to make it more accessible but the introduction of real-time tracking gave us an opportunity.”
After a successful pilot at the AO in 2021, the tool is now being rolled out to all centre court matches at the grand slam event this year, with a focus on growing that in the future. AKQA topped the 2021 AFR BOSS innovations in the media and marketing category for its Action Audio work.
“With some immediacy in mind, we want to scale the offering for the Australian Open this year and that’s to present it across more courts more days, to make it immediately more accessible for more listeners at home,” said Mr Reid.
“The second part is scale up within tennis. So even last year, we had interest from colleagues at the US Open and some English events because they’ve seen what happened at the Australian Open in 2021 and seeing the response and gone OK, here’s an opportunity for ourselves to make our events more accessible.”
Tennis Australia and AKQA also believe Action Audio can create a new language for sport.
“It can transcend tennis,” said Mr Reid, suggesting sports such as cricket and baseball, which could become more accessible through tracking technology.
“There’s a real opportunity there for it to really change the way that consumers take in sport and not just tennis,” he said.
Mr Devine wants a tool like Action Audio to become the standard on all sports for the next generation, with the expectation for it to be there as another layer of information helping people engage and absorb the sport.
For now, Tennis Australia is focused on ensuring the technology works well through the Australian Open and attracting listeners to the tool, which can be accessed via the Australian Open radio app.