All Tech Considered
2:48 pm
Sun May 12, 2013

New Closed-Captioning Glasses Help Deaf Go Out To The Movies

Originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 2:30 pm

There will be a special attraction for deaf people in theaters nationwide soon. By the end of this month, Regal Cinemas plans to have distributed closed-captioning glasses to 6,000 screens across the country.

Sony Entertainment Access Glasses are sort of like 3-D glasses, but for captioning. The captions are projected onto the glasses and appear to float about 10 feet in front of the user. They also come with audio tracks that describe the action on the screen for blind people, or they can boost the audio levels of the movie for those who are hard of hearing.

This is a big moment for the deaf, many of whom haven't been to the movies in a long time. Captioned screenings are few and far between, and current personal captioning devices that fit inside a cup holder with a screen attached are bulky, display the text out of their line of vision to the screen, and distract the other patrons.

Randy Smith Jr., the chief administrative officer for Regal Cinemas, says he has worked for more than a decade to find a solution to this problem. He tells Arun Rath, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that it has been his goal since 1998 "to develop a technology that would allow accessibility to the deaf and blind for every show time, for every feature."

Luckily, he had his own "personal guinea pig" at home, he says, in the form of his deaf son, Ryan, now 23. Smith said that as the tech companies would send him new prototypes, he and Ryan would test it out at the movies together, with Ryan giving him feedback along the way.

"We'd do that until we got to a point that we felt it was comfortable enough," Smith says.

Smith says he couldn't put into words what it felt like to finally be at this point, but after announcing the new device, he received a letter from a parent. Smith said that letter described the feeling perfectly:

"I've attempted to enjoy a movie with my son so many times over the last 26 years, but to no avail. After watching a movie I would try to discuss it with him. The comments he would make would in no way relate to the plot of the movie and at one point he finally confessed that as he watched the screen, he simply made up the story in his head. He didn't really know what was going on. The fact that I can take my son to a movie when he visits at the end of June is literally bringing tears to my eyes. It would seem silly to most people but I would imagine you understand what it feels like."

Smith says he can't express it any better than that.

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Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to Regal Entertainment.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Randy Smith Jr. has been working for more than a decade to build a personal device for deaf people that would allow them to enjoy movies, something that didn't require special screenings and wasn't bulky, something that would simply put captions on the screens. And now, that device is here.

They're glasses that project the captions on a screen in the form of a hologram floating about 10 feet in front of the person using them, sort of like 3-D glasses for captioning. Sony and Regal Cinemas have partnered up to create the first batch, and they'll be distributed to about 6,000 theaters across the country this month.

For Randy Smith Jr., the project was also personal. His son, Ryan, is deaf and a self-proclaimed cinephile. Ryan was the first tester of the devices throughout the years.

RANDY SMITH JR.: It has been our goal for, you know, I'd say, 15 years, to develop a technology that would allow accessibility to the deaf and the blind for every show time, for every feature. So it took us a long time, but as technologies would be developed, we'd meet with them, and they would send me prototypes. And I'd come home, and I'd basically say, you know, Ryan, tonight, we're going to go see a film and test the new technology. And he would give me feedback as to what he liked or didn't like, and we'd send that back to the technology manufacturer, and they'd tweak it.

RATH: So now that you're perfecting the technology and getting it out there, what is this going to mean for your family and the deaf community?

JR.: You know, it's hard for me to put into words. I actually got an email from a parent yesterday. If we had the time, I'd read you a couple words because I think he said it best.

RATH: If you're able to, we'd love to hear that.

JR.: (Reading) I've attempted to enjoy a movie with my son so many times over the last 26 years but to no avail. After watching a movie, I would try to discuss it with him. The comments he would make would, in no way, relate to the plot of the movie. At one point, he finally confessed that as he watched the screen, he simply made up the story in his head because he didn't really know what was going on.

The fact that I can take my son to a movie when he visits at the end of June is literally bringing tears to my eyes. It would seem silly to most people, but I would imagine you understand what it feels like. And...

RATH: Wow.

JR.: ...I don't think I can express it any better than that.

RATH: Yeah. I mean, it's something that we all take for granted so much. That's pretty moving.

JR.: It is. And when you have children and, you know, the forms of entertainment that we, as a society, engage in, movies are a big part of it. And when you completely eliminate that option for your children or one child has to be left behind, you know, that's going to tear at your heartstring.

RATH: So you had this in 6,000 of your theaters now. How long do you think it'll take before this gets to be widespread and out there everywhere?

JR.: Regal is going to be complete at the end of this month, but most all of them will be complete by the end of this year.

RATH: Randy, congratulations again. Thank you so much for joining us.

JR.: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Arun.

RATH: That was Randy Smith Jr., chief executive officer for Regal Cinemas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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