Ryerson grad wins DMZ award for startup

Kevin Shaw, second from left, accepts his award.

Kevin Shaw, second from left, accepts his award.

It’s been called the “Netflix for the blind”. Zagga Entertainment is an early-stage startup out of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) that is gaining interest in the Toronto startup community.

Last Tuesday, the company’s president and founder, Kevin Shaw, won an audience choice award at the DMZ’s 120 Minutes in the Zone annual business pitch event.

Their product, Zazemo, is an accessible website and mobile app that allows users to stream popular TV shows and movies with described video on demand. Described video content is a service that narrates live action in between dialogue for visually impaired viewers.

Shaw has been working on Zagga Entertainment for just over two years. The company started as a small idea he had while completing his master’s in media production at Ryerson.

He came up the idea while trying to watch a movie at home. Shaw, who lost his vision at the age of 19, says he has a shelf full of unopened DVDs. However, they are useless because they don’t have described video content. In order to watch them, he has to play a guessing game with the menu options to find the play button.

Shaw searched for an online service that offers a described content feature. But, after checking traditional broadcasters and Netflix, his search came up short. He was frustrated that this didn’t exist and wanted to do something about it.

Revolutionizing entertainment for the blind and visually impaired doesn’t stop at Zagga’s technology. The name of the company is very different from other players in the space.

“A lot of services use the words ‘accessible’ and ‘blind’ in their company name,” says Shaw. “I wanted to get away from that and choose something a bit more abstract.”

Zagga’s biggest competitors are illegal file sharing and pirating websites, but Shaw says these services don’t offer quality.

“The interfaces for those programs aren’t that great,” he says. “Plus, it involves breaking copyright law to use them and you still have to go through the process of downloading it.”

Larger organizations are starting to take notice of the growing need for described video. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has mandated traditional networks to provide more.

Last year, a U.S. district judge ruled that online providers, such as Netflix, are subject to disability laws under the American with Disabilities Act. This opened conversations about whether the company should be offering described content for the visually impaired.

This doesn’t scare the Zagga team. The company worked with CNIB, a non-profit rehabilitation agency that provides services for people who are visually impaired, to conduct a major market research survey. They’re currently prepping a prototype for launch in early 2014.

Shaw has big plans for Zagga Entertainment that go far beyond Canadian borders. The company is currently determining how they can scale the business for international markets in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 20, 2013.

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