Movies and PwD

Disability Need Not Be Barrier for Moviegoers
by MAURIE HILL on JANUARY 21, 2014

On a recent rainy afternoon, I ventured to our local movie theater to watch “Philomena”. I had the best movie experience since losing my 20/20 vision roughly 30 years ago. Stargardt Disease (similar to macular degeneration) has gradually robbed my ability to read text on the big screen, identify characters’ faces or expressions at times, and pick up important details or actions, no matter how close I sit. So what was different this time around? As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was anxious to try the MovieReading App on my iPhone as soon as “Philomena” came to town. The app allowed me to hear details I would normally miss, and it more than confirmed the idea that this app is the easiest solution for those who are sight-impaired and still want to enjoy movies and television.

Though I used an iPhone 5, the MovieReading app also works on an iPod Touch or iPad (as long as it can run iOS 6 or later); plus, an Android app is in the works. But forget the details for now, and let’s look at the bigger picture: I didn’t have to take a bus to a larger theater that provides specialty equipment for the blind (or hearing impaired). I didn’t have to worry that an untrained person would be the one attempting to show me how to use such equipment. I didn’t bother anyone sitting around me. I didn’t have to ask for any assistance to get it started. I used a device and headphones that I always carry with me anyways.

The movie “Philomena” was phenomenal and most of all, I knew what everyone was laughing or crying about because a pleasant voice in my ear told me what my eyes are not able to.

The MovieReading app was extremely easy to use. It uses the microphone on your device to determine where the playback is at, and then automatically syncs with the movie’s soundtrack within seconds. Though I arrived to the movie early, getting to the movie theater a little late is not a problem because it will sync. You just hear the audio description and reading of any text on the screen (such as subtitles and credits) through your headphones; the rest of the movie you listen just like everyone else through the theater’s speakers. I tried big padded headphones first, and then switched to ear buds. In both cases, I could still clearly hear the movie playing at the same time. I had never tried using audio description in my life, but after the first few minutes, it was neither confusing nor distracting. I chose to just use one ear bud for the descriptions; though I could have popped it out at any time, I never felt the need to.

Determining how to describe a movie through audio is definitely an art; I’m happy to report it was artfully done for this movie. There was no disruption while characters were having a conversation, so it would sometimes go a long time before describing again. Some examples of what and how things were described in different parts of the movie (if I remember correctly) – “Sister Hildegard peers coldly through the window at Philomena”; or “in a quaint village where a BMW pulls off to the side”; or “Anthony’s cherubic face can be seen in the rear window as the car starts down the country road”. The app did not annoy you with every facial expression, but described ones taking place at crucial moments, giving me a complete sense of the mood.

The app works with VoiceOver, so I was able to start the audio description by myself. A message from the app reminded me to put the device in airplane mode and lower the screen brightness so I wouldn’t disturb fellow moviegoers. The description will continue even when the screen is locked. Using wired headphones, the iPhone’s battery life went from 94% to 80% for this 90-minute movie. My fears of having a dead phone at the end (or in the middle of!) the movie were eliminated. I probably could have used my Bluetooth headphones and still had juice by the end of the movie as well.

Philomena is the only content currently available through the MovieReading app. If this movie is no longer playing in your local theaters but you are curious about audio description created by Hollywood Access Services, there are mp3 tracks available for purchase (these do not play within the MovieReading app) for the “Breaking Bad” TV series on DVD, the “Hunger Games” DVD, and more. You won’t have to unearth a buried audio description menu that some DVDs provide or worry about disturbing other family members while you listen to the description on your own device. Due to the fact that distributors haven’t yet made this content available for access through the MovieReading app, you’ll need to follow simple instructions at the beginning to manually sync the mp3 audio description with the DVD playback.

I strongly believe that the MovieReading app and its Solo-Dx technology for automatically syncing the content can hugely broaden access to more blind, sight impaired, and hearing impaired individuals. We’ve come a long way this year in increasing the ways and means of reading books. In terms of accessing visual content, the ease and consistency of enjoying movie and television content through one app is within reach.

In order to get first-run movies available on the MovieReading app, as well as television and after-theater movie content, the distributors must make their content available to Hollywood Access Services. This is necessary in order to create the appropriate audio description for the sight impaired as well as captioning files for the hearing impaired.

With regards to getting distributors to provide access, Anna Capezzera, co-founder and Vice President of Hollywood Access Services states that “there is a small fee to cover all technical aspects of hosting audio description on the app. For distributors that don’t use our company to provide audio description services, we can still upload their description if they give us access to the files. It’s a very simple process.”

She continues, “I think partially because this app is so new, distributors don’t have a full understanding of how enthusiastic people are about this technology and how much easier it makes going to the movies. If they had a better idea, one hopes they’d see that it’s worth their effort and the small fee to put their content on the app. The best thing the blind and visually impaired community can do is make their voices heard. Contacting distributors – movie studios, TV networks, streaming sites such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon – en masse would bring better awareness, plus contacting the National Association of Theater Owners could help because they in turn could influence the studios to make their movies available on the app. This is especially the case with smaller cinemas that can’t afford the currently available audio description equipment.”

So, if you want to help break down barriers to enjoying entertainment the easiest way I can imagine, then it looks like we have a job to do. At the very minimum, share your thoughts with all of us here.

For more information, check out these FAQ’s about the Solo-Dx technology used in the MovieReading app, listen to an interview about the app on Serotalk podcast 179 (one hour and 3 minutes into the podcast).

Tagged as: ai squared, app, audio description, iOS, Maurie Hill, MovieReading, movies, theater, zoomtext

3 thoughts on “Movies and PwD”

  1. This new app sounds amazing! Its exciting to hear about new breakthroughs and to hear how all the advancements in technology are creating new opportunities for people who truly need them. This app sounds like it will become popular in time. I think that it would be nice to sit back close your eyes and just listen to a movie. Sometimes we get caught up with so many things in life that we take the little things for granted. I’m excited to learn more about this app and will defiantly keep up on it. Perhaps in the future I can recommend this app for one of my clients and help them enjoy the little things in life again!


  2. I had no idea technology like this even existed. What a great way to help include those with visual limitations in such a common activity. What I like most about it is the fact that it does not highlight the persons disability through the use of special equipment because it just uses a cell phone and ear buds. I also like that it does not disturb others around the person using it. I hope that they market themselves so others know that this option exists and so that it can grow to include many movies.


  3. What a breakthrough in technology! I would love to learn more. I worry that this app would be distracting in the movie, but this user reports otherwise. I’m also curious as to how many movies are in the app. It won’t reach its full potential if there are not a lot of options.


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