General Cinema bows new captioning unit

HOLLYWOOD — For an estimated 34 million Americans with hearing and vision impairments, the movies may not deliver all their punch. But new technology could dramatically boost the enjoyment — and ticket purchases — of these hearing- and sight-challenged moviegoers throughout the country.

General Cinema, working with Digital Theater Systems, WGBH Educational Foundation and Universal Pictures has installed the Rear Window Captioning System and Descriptive Video Service Theatrical System in one of their Sherman Oaks, Calif., theaters, marking the first time such technology has been used in a conventional cinema.

The General Cinema installation, using technology developed at the WGBH Educational Foundation, was launched two weeks ago with a presentation of the Richard Gere/Bruce Willis starrer “The Jackal.”

“This is significant because it’s the first time the system has been used in a regular theater,” said Judith Navoy, project manager for WGBH’s Motion Picture Access Project. “We look forward to working with all the major studios and theater chains to further increase the accessibility of feature films nationwide.”

The Rear Window captioning system shows the captions on a special light-emitting diode display mounted in the rear of the theater. Hearing-impaired patrons can read the captions on transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats, which can be adjusted to reflect the text so it appears to be superimposed on the movie screen.

The Rear Window system has already been installed at large-format and specialty museum theaters around the world. Theater sound company DTS adapted its own digital theater sound technology to allow the system to play in standard theaters.

The DVS voice assistance for visually impaired audience members delivers descriptive narration into headsets via infrared or FM listening systems.

Both the text captions and voice narrations are recorded on CD-ROMs.

The system uses CD-ROMs to provide text captioning and audio tracks along with movies — without interfering with the general audience — and has already proven beneficial in the foreign feature film market by enabling exhibitors to provide different language tracks with a single print.

WGBH’s Motion Picture Access Project estimates installation costs of the system for conventional theaters at approximately $15,000 per screen.

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