by Michael Bayus

You might ask, "Why the heck would a blind person be interested in DVDs anyway?" I was a TV baby. In fact, when I was born in 1952, my dad was learning to be a TV repairman. We had 2 TVs in our house, both of them in the living room, and even though I was totally blind from birth, I enjoyed "watching" and one of the TVs was always on. One of my hobbies now is collecting DVDs of old vintage TV shows and creating old TV schedules (playing the shows on the day and at the time they were first aired), so I am interested in any DVD player (PC-based or otherwise) that would be blind-friendly, and there aren't very many. The Basics

Before I talk about this new DVD player I found, which is PC-based, let's talk about some basic concepts. What's a DVD?

A DVD is movies on a shiny disc, and much more. It's an optical disc storage technology for video, audio, and computer data. A DVD is essentially a bigger, faster CD that can hold high-quality digital video, better-than-CD audio, pictures, and any other sort of digital information. DVD encompasses home entertainment, computers, and business information with a single digital format. It replaced laser disc, videotape, many video game cartridge formats, and many CD-ROM applications. DVD has widespread support from all major electronics companies, all major computer hardware companies, and all major movie and music studios. With this unprecedented support, DVD became the most successful consumer electronics product of all time in less than three years of its introduction. In 2007, 10 years after launch, there were over one billion DVD playback devices worldwide, including DVD players, DVD PCs, and DVD game consoles.

For a blind person, a DVD presents something of an anomaly. Unlike a VHS video tape that starts just as soon as you put it in the player, a DVD presents you with a main menu, and, more likely than not, a series of submenus before you get to the movie.

Let's create a DVD with a series of titles. There is no such DVD as this, but I'll make one up for purposes of discussion in this article.

There are two options for blind people when using an average DVD player, either stand-alone or PC-based. 1) A blind person could require the assistance of a sighted spouse, family member or friend since the menus don't normally talk, or 2) one could make sure that there is at least one DVD player in the household that supports the direct access feature. This feature is on some, but not all players. Direct access allows you to play each item by pressing its number on the remote.

We have three DVD players at home; two of them have direct access. Since I am totally blind, and I don't want to bother my wife every time one of the shows ends, I'll use one of the players with direct access. When I put the DVD in, it begins to spin, and a series of logos and warnings come up that do not have sound that tell me that the material is copyrighted, and that copying it is illegal. Then some music plays and the titles come up. Title 1: Dragnet Title 2: Federal Men Title 3: Follow That Man Title 4: Front Page Detective Title 5: Gangbusters Title 6: I'm The Law and Title 7: The Lawless Years

Let's say I want to watch them in the order that they are on the disk. I would have to keep the remote nearby, and press the appropriate number, 001, 002, 003, etc., every time the last show ended and I wanted to start the next title. Enter the VLC Media Player

My wife and I both have laptop computers that play DVDs. The software that allows the PC to play DVDs is not blind-friendly in any way, and is very frustrating for me to use. As some if not most of you know, Windows Media Player is pretty easy for a blind person to use, and it can play DVDs if the right plug-in is installed. I was searching for a free one when I stumbled upon the VLC Media Player. I downloaded and installed it, and wow, did I get an amazing surprise! I put in a DVD, and much to my delight, all of the menus talked with my screen reader. While the names of the titles on the disk are not spoken, the screen reader does say "title one, title two," etc., as I arrow around. What Is It?

The VLC Media Player is a highly portable multimedia player supporting most audio and video formats (H.264, Ogg, DivX, MKV, TS, MPEG-2, MP3, MPEG-4, AAC, etc.) from files, physical media (DVDs, VCD, audio CD), TV capture cards and many network streaming protocols.

It can also convert media files, transcode and act as a streaming server over unicast or multicast and IPv4 or IPv6. It doesn't need any external codec, program or codec pack to work and, because it is open source and published under the GNU General Public License, it's completely free. It is extremely blind-friendly and easy to use, and it has a "disable menus" check box that will force the player to play all of the files that are on the disk one after the other. You can still pick a specific file on the disk, however. The local help interface is not very good; when you click on it, you get a message telling you to go to various support pages on the VLC web site.

The documentation, while not presented in a straightforward way, is very comprehensive and well-written, but you have to do a lot of hunting and fishing to find an answer to a question. For example: I discovered that some of my DVDs would play, and others would not. I didn't know that I would have to choose a region for my drive. (More about that at the end of this article.) I set my drive to the right region, and now all of my DVDs play perfectly.

About VideoLAN

VideoLAN is a project, run by volunteers, backed up by a non-profit organization, which produces free and open source software for multimedia, released under the GNU General Public License.

VLC Media Player is an open-source, free software media player written by the VideoLAN project. (You can find more information at www.videolan.org.) VLC is a portable multimedia player, encoder, and streamer supporting many audio and video codecs and file formats as well as DVDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols. It is able to stream over networks and to transcode multimedia files and save them into various formats. VLC stands for VideoLAN Client.

A Word About Regions

Motion picture studios want to control the home release of movies in different countries because theater releases aren't simultaneous (a movie may come out on video in the U.S. when it's just hitting screens in Europe). Also, studios sell distribution rights to different foreign distributors and would like to guarantee an exclusive market. Therefore they require that the DVD standard include codes to prevent playback of certain discs in certain geographical regions. Each player is given a code for the region in which it's sold. The player will refuse to play discs that are not coded for its region. This means that a disc bought in one country may not play on a player bought in another country. Some people believe that region codes are an illegal restraint of trade, but no legal cases have established this.

Regional codes are entirely optional for the maker of a disc. Discs without region locks will play on any player in any country. It's not an encryption system, it's just one byte of information on the disc that the player checks. Some studios originally announced that only their new releases would have regional codes, but so far almost all Hollywood releases play in only one region. Region codes are a permanent part of the disc; they won't "unlock" after a period of time. Region codes don't apply to DVD-Audio, DVD-ROM, or recordable DVD. Seven regions (also called locales or zones) have been defined, and each one is assigned a number. Players and discs are often identified by their region number superimposed on a world globe. If a disc plays in more than one region it will have more than one number on the globe.

The regions are: 1: U.S., Canada, U.S. territories

2: Japan, Europe, South Africa, and Middle East (including Egypt)

3: Southeast Asia and East Asia (including Hong Kong)

4: Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean

5: Eastern Europe (Former Soviet Union), Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia

6: China

7: Reserved

8: Special international venues (airplanes, cruise ships, etc.)


At last, a DVD player that can easily be used by the blind! While its developers did not specifically intend it to be used by blind people, it interfaces easily with Microsoft's accessibility hooks, making it a dream to use. Though it is software to be used on your computer, perhaps someday, stand-alone players will incorporate it with some text-to-speech software and it will be easier for us when we buy a DVD player off the shelf.

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