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New tech brings cinema to the deaf and blind

by

Staff Writer

The lights dimmed inside the theater at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the audience quieted down. As Masayuki Suo’s film “Maiko wa Lady (Lady Maiko)” began, the viewers were ready — with glasses-shaped head-mounted displays and earpieces designed to make cinema accessible to the deaf and blind.

The special screening held at TIFF on Oct. 24 was a chance for the audience to experience the future of cinema in a barrier-free environment, so that everyone can enjoy going to the movies.

“There was originally little interest in the film industry to making movies barrier-free, so we decided to tackle this objective ourselves,” said Koji Kawano, secretary-general of nonprofit Media Access Support Center.

“But helping those with disabilities was just the beginning — our goal is a universal design that enables people from various countries (to enjoy movies) when they visit Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

At the screening, two different brands of headset were distributed for attendees to test: Seiko Epson’s Moverio and Olympus’ Meg. They both functioned in more or less the same way.

The glasses were connected to a specially modified Android device running an app called UDCast, which can detect the film that’s playing by picking up the audio through the device’s mic and listening for a special inaudible code that can be embedded by the film company in supported films. The app then synchronizes to present descriptive subtitles for the deaf that are fed to the glasses and appear to float over the image on screen, and a descriptive audio track for the blind that can be listened to with headphones. The app is also currently available for iOS, and a consumer Android version is on the way.

Kawano, who used to be a sound engineer for Pioneer, told The Japan Times that making movies compatible with the head-mounted devices involves only one extra step of inserting a special “audio-digital” watermark into the movie. He said that all of the necessary technology has already been developed, and that they were waiting for the movie industry to jump in. You can test the subtitled feature of the app by downloading it and syncing with a sample clip from the 1996 film “E no Naka no Boku no Mura (Village of Dreams)” on YouTube.

At the moment, special barrier-free screenings are held at theaters but they are rare. These screenings feature descriptive subtitles on-screen for the deaf and descriptive audio over a radio earpiece for the blind.

Deaf viewers currently also have the option of watching foreign movies, which are subtitled in Japanese anyway — but that is usually not enough, because subtitles for those with hearing disabilities include not only the dialogue but also descriptions of sound effects and so on.

With this new technology, anyone who buys a head-mounted device will be able to stop by any movie theater at any time. Furthermore, if the subtitles are translated into other languages, foreigners can also enjoy the wide variety of Japanese films at the theater too.

The barrier-free movement, however, still has several obstacles it must overcome before the displays can come to market, including how to clearly differentiate them from camera-equipped head-mounted devices such as Google Glass to avoid suspicion of unauthorized recording.

Kawano and other film-industry insiders said they plan to spend 2015 giving the devices a test run and to establish rules and regulations. The goal is to officially install the system by April 2016, when the law to prohibit discriminatory treatment of disabled people will take effect.

When the audience tried out the glasses at the screening of “Maiko wa Lady,” a woman who was hard of hearing exclaimed with excitement, “I can see (the subtitles) clearly!”

“Maiko wa Lady” is a musical about a young girl who is “bilingual” in two dialects — from Kagoshima and from Tsugaru in Aomori Prefecture — and who moves to Kyoto to become a maiko (apprentice geisha). Like a modern-day version of “My Fair Lady,” the film depicts the young girl struggling to master a completely new dialect, with the help of a peculiar linguistic professor.

With the special headsets, viewers who are hard of hearing were able to follow the subtitles that appeared in front of their eyes for the full 135 minutes.

After the screening, Karin Matsumori, a universal-design adviser who lost her hearing during her teens, told the audience that she became fully immersed in Suo’s movie, being able to read the difference in dialects and the descriptions of the background sounds.

“It was truly a refreshing experience,” Matsumori said. “Reading the subtitles also helped me to reconfirm the presence of sound — the sound of the shamisen, wind chimes, rain or a door slamming.”

Matsumori suggested some areas with room for improvement, including the weight of the glasses — which she said seemed light at first but began to feel heavier after a couple of hours. The floating subtitles were also a bit difficult to follow, she said, as they moved around every time the glasses shifted.

She also suggested that since the movie was a musical, the subtitles could be made to dance around the screen or change sizes, bringing the songs to life visually.

Director Suo, known for his award-winning 1996 film “Shall We Dance?,” also spoke at the screening, expressing enthusiasm for Matsumori’s suggestions.

“I have always wanted to create movies that are not limited to a specific audience,” Suo said. “But to me that meant targeting a broad range of tastes and lifestyles, rather than considering whether the audience could see or hear.

“Thanks to (this barrier-free movement), I have come to realize the true meaning of movies for all. This is a wonderful new system, and we must (improve) the shortcomings and make it succeed.”