Skip to Content


August 21, 2003

WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media Publishes "A Developers Guide to Creating Talking Menus for Set-top Boxes and DVDs"

Guidelines Available to Download Free of Charge at

The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at Boston public broadcaster WGBH announces the publication of "A Developer's Guide to Creating Talking Menus for Set-top Boxes and DVDs." The models and suggestions presented in these guidelines reflect lessons learned during development of talking menu prototypes for electronic program guides. Guidelines also reflect WGBH's experience in actual product development of accessible DVDs in conjunction WGBH's Interactive division and with the staff of the PBS series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

The guidelines are the result of a project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to research and address the barriers for users who are blind or visually impaired to the growing number of products and services that rely on navigating on-screen menus via remote controls.

The television set used to be a simple appliance. Its interface was mechanical — a few rotary knobs that clicked from position to position, providing tactile feedback and thus a form of accessibility to users who could not see. Similarly, users who are blind could load a videotape into a VCR and play a movie by memorizing the functions of a few buttons on the remote control.

Today, selecting a program or playing a DVD is a far more complex and interactive experience, one that relies on the ability to navigate through on-screen menus via one or more remote controls. DVD interfaces present users with graphics-rich menus that offer many choices-- between chapter selections of a movie or documentary and a host of bonus materials such as games, music videos and commentary. Similarly, digital set-top boxes are the keys to a kingdom of news, entertainment and other services, all at your fingertips as long as you can view the options of the electronic program guides (or EPGs) to make your selections.

Blind and visually impaired users must be able to easily track available program and service options, and accessibility solutions must anticipate how users interact with graphic-rich user interfaces. The integration of accessibility solutions into this expanding collection of media formats will offer significant gains to all users in homes, schools, workplaces and on our travels.

Here are few of the questions developers of talking menus will want to consider, and which are explored in the publication:

  • How should the talking menu behave on startup?
  • How should the user enable or disable the audio-navigation system?
  • What should the interface do to prevent a user from becoming lost?
  • What kind of audio feedback should the interface provide as the user moves from selection to selection?
  • Is the menu system a grid?
  • Is the menu system designed to deliver information or make choices to drive a process?

Chapters such as "Defining the Problem," "Exploring Solutions," "The Art of Design," "Prompts and Responses: System Concerns for Talking Menus," "Speaking of Graphics," "Best Practices for Talking Menus," and separate how-to sections for developers of set-top boxes and DVDs are included.

"A Developer's Guide to Creating Talking Menus for Set-top Boxes and DVDs" is available to download at A list of fully accessible DVDs, which include closed captioning for deaf and hard of hearing users, audio descriptions and talking menus for blind and visually impaired users, is available at

WGBH's work on talking menus grows out of three decades of experience pioneering and furthering access solutions to mass media for people with sensory disabilities. WGBH developed captioning for television in the early 70s, brought audio description (which describes on-screen action, settings, costumes and character expressions during pauses in dialogue) to television and videos in the late '80s. Throughout the 90s, these services were applied and integrated into other forms of mass media, including movie theaters (via WGBH's "MoPix" technology and service), Web sites (via WGBH's MAGpie, a free software tool that enables do-it-yourself captioning and description for digitized media) and classrooms (through projects which utilize captioning and description to increase literacy levels and foster inclusiveness for all students). Today, all of WGBH's access initiatives are gathered in one division, the Media Access Group at WGBH.

Related Projects and Resources: Access to Digital Television ( – A multi-year effort to maintain and expand access via captioning and description to digital television. Work includes participating on industry committees of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, the Advanced Television Systems Committee and the Consumer Electronics Association with the involvement of major consumer organizations representing people with disabilities. Funding for these efforts are provided by the Corporate for Public Broadcasting and the U.S. Department of Education.

Access to Physics Interactive Video Tutor (PIVoT) - A multi-year collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design access interfaces for an online physics course. The resulting guidelines for creating accessible Web sites and software are now available from NCAM ( Funding was provided by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Access to Rich Media ( - The Access to Rich Media project is developing captioning and description software tools for rich media and establishing a Rich Media Accessibility Web site to provide Web designers, multimedia developers, consumers, and access technology researchers with a centralized source of information and tools for making multimedia accessible. Funding is provided by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education.

Beyond the Text ( - NCAM's Beyond the Text project is researching ways to make multimedia (images, audio and video) used in e-books accessible to people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or visually impaired. Funding is provided by NIDRR, U.S. Department of Education.

About WGBH

WGBH Boston is America's preeminent public broadcasting producer. More than one-third of PBS's prime-time lineup and companion Web content as well as many public radio favorites are produced by WGBH. Its best-known productions include NOVA, Frontline, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre, This Old House, Arthur, and Zoom on PBS and The World and Sound & Spirit on public radio. WGBH also is a pioneer in educational multimedia and in technologies and services that make media accessible to people with disabilities. Since its establishment in 1951, WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors, including Emmys, Peabodys, duPont-Columbia Awards — even two Oscars. For more information visit


Mary Watkins, Media Access Group at WGBH
617.300.3700 voice/fax
617.300.2489 TTY