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Monday, November 24, 1997
Moviegoing Devices for the Disabled Make Their Debut
Entertainment: The systems, on a trial run in Sherman Oaks, assist the
deaf and blind.
By SUSANNE GAYLE HARRIS, PHILLIP JACQUES, Special to The Times
W hen Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin goes to a movie
premiere, she has to rely on a sign-language interpreter to convey the
When Mitch Pomerantz, past president of the California Council of the
Blind, asked a friend to describe a movie's on-screen action, nearby
viewers weren't too pleased.
But the moviegoing experience for Americans with vision or hearing
disabilities may soon change dramatically, thanks to two new technologies
that debuted last week at the General Cinema Theatre in Sherman Oaks.
The Rear Window Captioning System provides subtitles--via a
seat-mounted acrylic panel--that appear to be superimposed on the movie
screen. The Descriptive Video Service Theatrical system offers descriptive
narration of on-screen action via wireless headsets.
Both technologies were developed by the WGBH Educational Foundation
in Boston with a grant from the Department of Education. They'll be
available on a trial basis through Tuesday at the Sherman Oaks theater
during regularly scheduled screenings of Universal Pictures' "The Jackal."
"I believe we're making history here," said William J. Smith, the
theater's general manager. Movie theaters have been under pressure to
accommodate people with disabilities, and the new technologies have the
potential to provide an effective, relatively low-cost solution.
The Rear Window system uses a light-emitting diode display mounted on
the rear wall of the theater. Words are reflected on the acrylic panels,
which are attached to an adjustable wire stand that fits into the cup
holder at each seat. The panel unit is portable, enabling the user to sit
almost anywhere in the theater.
For the vision-impaired, the DVS Theatrical system provides
description of actions, settings and scene changes, using infrared or FM
Both systems operate in unison, using a CD-ROM player and a special
reader attached to the film projector that keeps the caption and audio
information in sync.
The hardware costs about $15,000 for each theater, and Smith said
there were no serious technical glitches with the trial installation.
A key goal of the trial was to get feedback from deaf and blind
moviegoers, project manager Judith Navoy said. Members of the Greater Los
Angeles Council on Deafness and the California Council of the Blind were
invited to try the new systems and complete a questionnaire.
While written results have yet to be analyzed, the anecdotal comments
have been favorable.
Blind patron Mitch Pomerantz, an American With Disabilities Act
compliance officer for the city of Los Angeles, tried the DVS Theatrical
system Wednesday night.
"It was a great experience," he said. "I have used descriptive video
before, but not in a regular public theater." Pomerantz was accompanied by
his friend and professional associate, Richard Ray, who is deaf. Ray tried
out the Rear Window system, calling it "excellent, a brilliant idea."
But such technology isn't favored by all activists. Many have been
pressing for all films to have subtitles visible without special
equipment--a solution opposed by the movie industry as intrusive for other
Representatives from Sony, DreamWorks, Warner and Fox came to the
theater and sampled both systems, and Navoy said the response was
It remains unclear how quickly the systems might be adopted. Movie
studios have to agree to create the narratives for the DVS systems at an
estimated cost of $12,000 per film. And, of course, theater owners have to
install the gear.
The subtitling system will work better in some theaters than in
others, because it requires a direct line of sight from the rear screen to
the seat-mounted panels.
With an estimated 24 million Americans living with deafness or
hearing loss, proponents hope that the industry will consider it in its
economic interest to move quickly.
Copyright Los Angeles Times