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Press Release:

MOPIX in the News

Movie Theater Technology Projects Access to Vision, Hearing-Impaired

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
By Robert L. Jamieson Jr.
February 25, 1999

The movie screened at Pacific Place theaters yesterday morning was the crime drama "Eight Millimeter." But for Marlaina Lieberg, who is legally blind, the day would have been better summed up by the film "At First Sight."

In the past, Lieberg would get lost in movies during wordless action scenes or whenever the actors stopped talking. But yesterday, for the first time, she was able to "see" a movie unfold seamlessly by wearing special wireless headphones. They picked up an infrared signal carrying detailed dialogue and fill-in narrative for the wordless sections - all sent from the theater's projection room.

Seated a few feet away, Jeremy Quiroga, who is deaf, stayed riveted to every word of the movie by reading a small plastic screen - about the size of a car's rear view mirror - anchored to his seat. Movies usually lull him to sleep. Yesterday he was wide awake.

For Lieberg, Quiroga and hundreds of thousands of hearing- and visual-impaired people in Washington state, the new, deceptively simple looking tools installed this week in one theater at General Cinema's Pacific Place 11 downtown spell one thing: freedom to enjoy movie magic.

No longer will they have to wait for big-screen blockbusters to come out much later on videotape with closed captions; no longer will they have to go to special screenings with subtitles; no longer will they have to dragoon to the movies their friends who will tell them what is going on. "Your friends want to see the movie, too," Lieberg said with a chuckle after yesterday's screening, her guide dog, Madeline, lying at her feet. "This is the first movie I have seen. It makes me feel like everyone else."

The dual technologies build on concepts that are already in use in television, and to a much lesser degree, theaters.

"For movies this is completely new," said Judith Navoy, a project manager for the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH, a public television station in Boston and major player in the movie technology project.

Given the popularity of movies and the large number of people who have visual and aural impairments, "it just seemed like the right thing to do," said Brian Callaghan, a spokesman for General Cinema Theaters.

"If you have hearing or visual loss, movies have never been open to you," Callaghan said. "Access for everyone is our thinking."

General Cinema already has installed the devices in theaters in Los Angeles and Chicago, drawing raves from those who were helped. At one California screening, viewers wept.

The company partnered with WGBH, which pioneered the technology by working with Digital Theater Systems, a California company that creates stereo sound for movies.

One of the challenges in bringing the concept off the drawing board was creating a closed-caption display system that would not bother other viewers in the theater. Also, General Cinema needed to make certain they had a sound delivery system that would synchronize words and descriptions with the action on screen.

Developers came up with "rear window" captioning, which uses the small, tinted rectangular plastic screen that "catches" word images projected from the back of the theater.

The screen is attached to a flexible gooseneck arm that is easily adjusted. The words, unlike television closed captioning, scroll smoothly in red lettering.

In addressing the second hurdle, developers made sure the sound-projected words of narrative and dialogue run on a CD-based system and are time-coded to synchronize with the pace of the film.

So far, General Cinema has worked with movie companies to ensure that major films are made available to be converted. Four have already been used - "The Jackal," "Titanic," "The Mask of Zorro" and now "Eight Millimeter," starring Nicolas Cage, which opens tomorrow - and officials are looking to get more.

"A lot of this is the chicken and the egg," Navoy explained. "Movie theaters say they are interested in the technology but want to make sure there are movies available for them. The movie people say they are interested but they want to make sure theaters are equipped."

General Cinema officials said newspaper movie ads, beginning tomorrow, will designate movies that have the special technologies - in this case "Eight Millimeter."

Officials said it costs about $12,000 to format one film and about $15,000 to outfit one theater with the technology. In Seattle, the Kodak Co., which provides film for many Hollywood productions, covered installation costs. (It will cost nothing additional for people to use the reflectors and headsets.)

No one doubts there is a market for the devices: In Washington state, more than 450,000 people have mild hearing loss to profound deafness and more than 90,000 people have severe visual impairments.

And if patterns elsewhere are telling, officials say the devices also could prove popular among the elderly and with foreigners, who may be better at reading English than understanding it when spoken.

"This is such an exciting idea," said Phyllis Cairns, manager for the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, which serves individuals who have trouble reading for reasons of blindness or learning disability. "We always have people asking for this. . . . If you make it, they will come."

Lieberg and about a dozen other people who joined her at the special screening yesterday could not agree more.

Lieberg said that while watching "Eight Millimeter," she knew exactly what was happening all the time. "The (headset) tells me '(Nicolas Cage) is going room to room. A shadow is falling across his face.' Ohh. . . . It is sooo suspenseful."

It's also a far cry from her last movie experience, "Titanic." During that movie she had no idea how the ending really looked.

"My ending was totally different. I had Rose standing on the deck of ship and everything fading to black," she said, laughing.

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