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Press Release:

MOPIX in the News

Two New Systems to Help Deaf and Blind at Movies

From The New York Times
By Thomas W. Holcomb Jr.

The heads-up display, a staple of Hollywood science fiction and films about jet-fighter jocks, has made the leap from the big screen -- right into the darkened theater.

A version of the futuristic displays -- translucent screens that can carry text and images but can also be seen through -- is being introduced as a way to let deaf filmgoers view subtitles that are not visible to those in the audience able to hear the soundtrack.

Picture of woman with caption panel
George M. Gutierrez for The New York Times
In rear-window captioning, subtitles are displayed in reverse and reflected in a plexiglass panel, through which the movie is seen.

The technology, along with a separate system that lets blind people use headphones to hear a running description of the on-screen action, has been developed by the National Center for Accessible Media.

The center, a joint effort of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Boston public television station WGBH, is trying to adapt systems already used in TV broadcasting, in hopes of enabling the deaf and the blind to attend movies in conventional theaters alongside people who do not have hearing or vision problems.

The General Cinema theater chain, a partner in the tests, recently installed the systems in one of the theaters at its Bay Plaza multiplex in New York. The systems also are available at General Cinema Clifton Commons in Clifton, N.J.

With the text-display system, called rear-window captioning, subtitles are displayed, in mirror reverse, on a 7-foot-wide, 16-inch-tall light-emitting-diode screen at the rear of the theater.

People watch the film through a small smoked plexiglass panel, which reflects the subtitles behind them while allowing them to also see the movie screen at the front of the theater. The panel, 4 inches by 12 inches, is attached to a gooseneck extension that fits into the cup holder on the armrest of the theater seat.

The rear-window captioning system can be disorienting at first. In fact, some advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing have criticized the system, including Cheryl A. Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons.

Heppner discussed the system in a message posted to the Media Access Mailing List, an online discussion group. "With only a few exceptions," Heppner wrote, "most of the people I have heard from dislike rear-window captioning, and some cannot use it at all."

But when she was asked to elaborate in an e-mail interview, Heppner said she supported the development of rear-window captioning in the absence of a better solution.

The descriptive video service, called DVS Theatrical, delivers a spoken interpretation of the visual elements of a film to special headsets.

The Bay Plaza theater is the 10th General Cinema house in the United States to install the descriptive-video and captioning systems, which are also available at a number of specialty theaters around the country like Imax and Disney theaters.

General Cinema's first installation of the systems was at a multiplex in Los Angeles in 1997, for the openings of "The Jackal" and "Titanic." Brian Callaghan, a spokesman for General Cinema, which is owned by GC Cos., said the chain was supporting the technology because "Our job is really bringing movies to the public -- not just bringing movies to the sighted and the hearing public, but bringing them to all the public."

The installation in New York, he said, cost about $12,000.

Captioning and descriptive video have been available on television and in home video releases for some time. The National Center for Accessible Media has more than 200 captioned and descriptive-video titles in its video library, and there is a limited amount of described programming on PBS and on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. The descriptive narration is carried on the SAP -- or second audio program -- on stereo televisions.

While General Cinema is voluntarily testing the systems, some people with disabilities are bringing pressure on the movie-theater industry to move faster.

Last month, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act, eight hearing-impaired Oregonians filed a lawsuit against several national theater chains, complaining of insufficient access to first-run movies. Their lawyer, Dennis Steinman, said his clients were waiting for hearings to be scheduled, to determine whether they have legal standing to file a class-action suit.

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