2006 da Vinci
The Ken Mason
Boston Business Journal
by Rex Crum
October 18, 1999
FRAMINGHAM--The new Harrison Ford movie, "Random Hearts," is playing at the General Cinema theater here, just as it is showing on screens across the country.
When the lights go down and the opening credits begin to roll, the average movie patron sees the film running across the screen and hears the dialogue coming from the theater's sound system.
But even though the movie is on the screen before them, some theater-goers are also paying attention to the screens attached to their seats.
They're not ignoring the movie; they're reading the film's dialogue by using a new movie-captioning system developed at Boston-based WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM).
The system, called "rear-window captioning," premiered at Chestnut Hill-based GC's Framingham theater this month and represents a technological leap over traditional captioning models. Its appearance also represents the efforts to enhance the movie-watching experience for the hearing-impaired.
"It goes along with our mission," said Mary Watkins, outreach manager of WGBH's media access division. "Our research into the market showed that something like this could be a successful outreach of TV captioning."
Rear-window captioning involves three parts to make it work. The film itself is encoded with captions that cannot be seen by the movie-watchers.
However, the captions are sent electronically from the film to a Plexiglas display mounted on the theater's rear wall. To view the captions, patrons use a transparent acrylic panel that can be attached to their seat's armrest or cup-holder. The screen in the back of the theater bounces the captioning signal onto the panel displays and the words then can be read. The screen and its attachment are made so that the apparatus will not hinder the view of any other movie-goers.
The new captioning system is part of WGBH's Motion Picture Access Project, dubbed MoPix. The project began in 1992 with a three-year, $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation.
To continue the project, the grant was upped to three years at $125,000 a year in 1995.
According to Watkins, it costs a theater operator between $12,000 and $15,000 to equip a theater with the MoPix closed-captioning and audio-enhancement technologies. Audio enhancement involves providing headphones that include movie narration and is designed to improve the movie experience for blind and visually impaired people.
"It's so transparent that it doesn't pester anyone around the viewer," said Larry Shaw, a principal at Boston Light and Sound Inc.
Boston Light is an audio and motion picture system developer that works with WGBH to equip theaters with the MoPix technology. Shaw said that theaters sometimes need to be inspected and have special brackets or other attachments installed to seats in order to accommodate the caption displays, but once all the technology is in place, "it's pretty much bonehead proof. You just run the film."
General Cinema has been quick to embrace WBGH's movie-enhancement work. In addition to its theater in Framingham, General Cinema has outfitted its theaters in 10 cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle.
Brian Callaghan, director of communications at General Cinema, said his company was approached about two years ago by WGBH about equipping its theater with the sight- and hearing-improvement technology. The company is now the only national theater chain with the MoPix technology installed.
Originally, General Cinema installed the captioning and video-narration systems at its Los Angeles theaters. Callaghan said the company has put the local systems in place at its Framingham theater in order to showcase the technology at a location that is centrally located for many Greater Boston customers.
"We're doing it one theater at a time, but it's a market that's so new and unique that people might be willing to drive to use it," Callaghan said.
WGBH's Watkins said that while General Cinema has been eager to install the MoPix technologies, it is, in a way, at the mercy of the movie studios.
It's the studios that have the final say over what movies they are willing to pay to be captioned and enhanced.
"It's a chicken-and-the-egg situation," Watkins said.
"The theaters say they need more movies with the technology in order to install the systems, and the studios say they need more installations before they'll support more movies."