Entrepreneur creates Netflix for the blind
Zagga Entertainment Ltd.
email@example.com, 416-886-4532, www.zagga.tv
Video-on-demand services for the blind
1 part-time, several advisors
Video-on-demand service with descriptive audio for the blind
People with loss of vision interested in narrated television and movies
Kevin Shaw’s entrepreneurial epiphany began with a dusty stack of shrink-wrapped DVDs in his living room in 2011.
While searching for a film, Shaw — who lost his vision at the age of 19 as a result of a rare disease — discovered he’d never even unwrapped many of the films.
“I realized getting the DVD to play was not the issue, it was navigating the onscreen menu to get to the described video option, and turn that track on, that was the problem,” says Shaw, now 35.
Described video narrates the action onscreen between dialogue, allowing blind people to enjoy films much like closed captioning helps people with hearing loss.
After doing some research, he discovered neither Rogers-On-Demand or Netflix offered described video menu navigation and content. Shaw immediately saw potential for a new entrepreneurial endeavour.
“There’s a huge niche for this service,” says Shaw, stating that over 10 million North Americans are living with vision loss that cannot be corrected.
He started hashing out a prototype and by 2012 he incorporated Zagga Entertainment with the goal of setting up the first Netflix-type service for the blind.
Unfortunately, now Shaw and his business partner Jacky Tuinstra-Harrison, who works part-time as director of sales and acquisitions, are at a stand still.
They lack sufficient content and capital to properly launch the service.
Complicating his pitch is the fact that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) only requires four hours of described programming a week. That’s in stark contrast to what Shaw believes is the demand.
A survey conducted by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) on Zagga’s behalf found that of 250 people living with vision loss or low vision, 47 per cent subscribe to cable or satellite. Fifty-five per cent said they would sign up right away or try a described video service if it were available today.
With weak CRTC regulations surrounding descriptive video, Shaw feels the needs of the blind are being overlooked, and that is making it difficult for him to convince investors of the demand for his services.
“Launching a service like this has a very high barrier to entry,” says Shaw, who has worked in radio and live entertainment for over a decade. “Here we’re licensing content from the major studios and we need enough of that content to make the service viable.”
Shaw plans to price his service similar to traditional video-on-demand offerings, without charging a hefty premium for accessibility or described video.
The prototype currently offers a glimpse of how the system would work: “It basically shows what the user interface would look like and feel like to someone who is blind and using a screen reader to navigate the screen as opposed to their eyes,” he says.
To make it real, he needs funding.
In a blue sky scenario, he suspects he’ll require about $10 million to buy a good chunk of content and launch Zagga’s as of yet unnamed service throughout North America. But at the moment, Shaw is after $2 million to launch the service on a smaller scale in Canada.
“I’ve put in my own capital to cover legal costs and build the prototype but we haven’t raised anything yet,” says Shaw.
The most common concern from investors is what’s to stop Netflix — which hit 40 million subscribers last year — from launching a similar service tomorrow, undermining Zagga’s product.
Deborah Fels, a professor at Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management who is working with Shaw in an advisory and research capacity, says Netflix isn’t a viable competitor.
“Netflix doesn’t care right now. They’re already fighting the notion that they might be required to include descriptive content,” says Fels.
The American Council of the Blind has been lobbying the streaming service to include described audio but so far there’s been no change to Netflix’s offering.
Instead, Fels suspects Shaw’s biggest challenge in wooing investors is a lack of evidence surrounding demand. He needs to convince investors that there’s wider demand for the service than just blind people. Fels argues that if all movies were narrated like this – an audio description as a performance element – they might appeal to the seeing public much in the same way audiobooks do.
“From my point of view there’s still a lot more research to carry out,” she says. “At the moment (Zagga) only has one market survey.”
While Shaw continues to network with potential investors, he and Fels are developing a software that would allow him to crowdsource descriptive audio, meaning anyone could record a descriptive audiotrack for content and submit it.
Crowdsourcing could lower the cost and speed up the process of generating described content, adds Shaw.
There aren’t plans to integrate the crowdsourcing aspect of the software right away, but he hopes it could eventually be used as a tool for describing viral videos and web content that often get overlooked.
“We know that the technology is there to handle all the accessibility challenges,” Shaw says. “We just need that large amount of capital to build a library that people will want to come to over and over again.”