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Press Release:

How the Force will be with Deaf Moviegoers

Clever new technologies will help them enjoy the new Star Wars flick

By John A. Williams
May 18, 1999

When the summer's most anticipated movie, Star Wars, Episode I, The Phantom Menace, opens on May 19, deaf and hard-of -hearing patrons will be able to read the dialogue at some theaters. And blind and visually impaired moviegoers will have a variety of actions described to them by a professional narrator, a process known as descriptive video services (DVS).

These two communications processes for the Star Wars movie are being funded by billionaire Paul Allen, one of the foundings of Microsoft who takes a special interest in disability issues. For people with vision and hearing impairments, access to new communications technology for movies is another advancement.

Deaf and blind people living near General Cinema theaters in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Seattle, and Atlanta can patronize the captioned and DVS versions of the movie on opening day, May 19. General Cinema theaters in Lombard (near Chicago), Owings Mills, Md., Clifton, N.J., and Plymouth Meeting (near Philadelphia), will have their captioned and DVS versions within a week or two at the latest.

The communications technology will be provided by public television station WGBH in Boston. The station says there are 34 million deaf, blind, hard of hearing and visually impaired people in the U.S. who can benefit from these services.

WGBH has transcribed the dialogue in the movie, carefully timing it to syncronize with the action. Special identifications have been given for speakers and musical themes, sound effects, and other video cues that are included to provide a complete experience for the deaf and hard-of-hearing viewer. Participating movie theaters will use a new patented technology called the Rear Window Captioning (RWC) System.

RWC displays reversed caption on a light-emitting diode (LED) text display, that is mounted in the rear of the theater. Deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons watch the movie through acrylic panels that attach to their seats. The captions appear to be superimposed on the movie screen. The reflective panels are portable and adjustable, so the caption user can sit anywhere in the theater. The RWC was co-developed by WGBH and Rufus Butler Seder of Boston.

For blind patrons, writers called describers will capture the visual moment in the movie with words. Then professional narrators match the words to the movie. Descriptive narration is carefully crafted and seamlessly applied so it will not interfere with the extraordinary soundtrack of the movie. The descriptions provide narrated information about the key visual elements such as the settings, actions, and scene changes.

The DVS Theatrical system delivers narration by way of infrared or FM listening systems, enabling blind and visually impaired moviegoers to hear the descriptive narration on headsets without disturbing other movie patrons.

Both technologies have been available in specialty theaters -- such as large-format movie theaters and theme parks -- for several years. Digital Theater Systems (DTS) in Westlake Village, Calif., helped WBGH to bring these technologies to conventional movie theaters.

DTS is a leader in digital sound for movies, providing multichannel digital audio on CD-ROMs also. A reader attached to the film projector reads a time-code track printed on the film and signals the DTS player to play the audio synchronous to the film.

It can take up to 40 hours to caption and to review a two-hour movie and prepare it for theater viewing. The whole process for audio description takes up to 100 hours for a two hour movie. It can take 80 hours to write and describe the film, 10 hours to edit, and 10 hours to record and mix the track.

The movie is usually broken up into smaller sections with several people working in parallel, allowing a movie to be captioned and described in a few days. Both production processes use editors to polish the work.

How much does all this cost? WGBH says it varies from theater to theater depending on the factors such as theater size and existing equipment. The cost of the equipment for providing the RCS and DVS Theatrical is estimated at approximately $15,000. The costs to caption and describe a film is approximately $12,000. But with movies making from $10 million to more than $100 million, this $27,000 investment is small when you realize that 34 million disabled people can have access to a film in the U.S.

The RWC and DVS Theatrical are also available at the Kennedy Space Center and at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, and in theaters in New Orleans, Boston, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Chattanooga, Houston, Hampton, Va., and Wauwatosa, Wis. For more information, visit

Williams writes a frequently on assistive technology services and products that benefit disabled people. To get answers to questions on AT products, E-mail him at JMMAW@AOL.COM.

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