Improving Cinema Experience for the Vision Impaired
I recently became aware of an entire ecosystem of services to help people with all levels of vision impairment enjoy movies. These services provide an audio description of the visual scene. It's a bit like subtitles, but for the blind. Of course these services can help those with other vision impairments as well.
Audio Described Movies Help Visually Impaired
"Audio Described Movies" is the generic name for this service. New movie releases from major studios almost always have a descriptive audio track. For smaller studios or older movies there is an active community of people who create descriptive soundtracks. There are even annual competitions for the best audio description.
For television in the US this description used to be carried on the Second Audio Program, or SAP, and you enabled this on your television. With the move to digital TV things changed. Now your cable company has to decide how to carry the descriptive audio; check with them. For DVDs the audio description is often available as a special feature in the Languages menu. Of course for both TVs and DVDs, everyone in the room has to hear the descriptive narration.
In theaters it is a more private experience. When you enter the theater you pick up a special headset that receives the audio program through a small radio receiver. Not all theaters have these headsets and they only have so many; you must call the theater to make a reservation ahead of time. Theater chain web sites should tell you which have narration (e.g. AMC).
A Better Solution: Cinema and Visual Impairment
Recently my company has been involved with a project conducted by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) called "Available Cinema". SFI wanted to find a better way for people with impaired vision to enjoy the cinema. SFI reviewed all the current solutions and found them lacking. After much investigation, SFI commissioned Cybercom Group to develop a new way to deliver the visual description. Instead of needing a special bit of hardware at the theater, Cybercom Group developed a smart phone application that lets you take the visual description with you - anywhere!
With the plethora of mobile digital devices a user could always have taken an iPod with the narration track, but synchronizing it with the movie was difficult. When does one press "go"? And what about at home? Imagine enjoying a movie at home with friends when one of them decides to skip back to watch a scene again. Now the visual narration is out of sync and the visually impaired person is lost.
With the SFI / Cybercom solution this all changes.
A user downloads the Cybercom app to a smart phone or tablet. The user then selects the movie(s) they plan to watch and downloads the visual narration for each one to their mobile device. While the movie is playing, this special application uses the smart phone microphone to figure out the exact location in the movie soundtrack and plays the visual narration in perfect synchronization. When your friend skips the movie back, this new solution will automatically resynchronize in just a few seconds!
Running on an Apple or Android device, there is no need to make a reservation or even to plan far ahead. The user can download the visual narration while someone else is making popcorn.
Of course today's smart phones are not the most ideal device for the visually impaired, but they will get better. Perhaps we'll see a new class of assisstive device targeted specifically for the visually impaired with audio described movies as just one of a number of clever features.
At this time there are only applications for Swedish movies. (e.g. VoiceVision) However, the SFI is making the software platform available to any organization that wants to provide mobile visual narration. We can look forward to having this new solution available world wide.
With this new solution the visually impaired can enjoy the movie anywhere, anytime, knowing that the visual narration is always in their pocket, ready to bring the movie to life.
Learn more: Related Sites
- A review of the SFI solution
- The American Council of the Blind - Audio Description Project
- Descriptive Video Service
- Retinitis Pigmentosa International Theatre Vision
- Media Access Group at WGBH