For four years, I have lived within three blocks of two major movie theaters on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, yet, as a deaf person, I have never gone to a movie in these theaters because they do not use captioning systems. Consequently, my wife and I are forced to go across town to specially scheduled open-captioned or Rear Window Captioning screenings of these movies in select theaters, or go to independent theaters that show foreign films with English subtitles. It was either this, or wait for movies with subtitles to arrive on DVD, months after their release.
I have always wanted the flexibility — like any hearing person — to decide at a moment’s notice to see a movie at my local theater. So, imagine my excitement when, earlier this week, I heard about a new, 99-cent iPhone application that lets me do just that.
Called “Subtitles,” and developed by Daniel Walker of Structure6, this app pulls movie transcripts from Opensubtitles.org, and displays the words, line by line, on the iPhone screen.
From an entertainment perspective, this is a terrific application. To finally have an opportunity to watch a movie anytime, anywhere, is a true watershed moment in my movie-viewing experience — and will likely be for many people in the deaf community.
To test out the app, I decided to see Avatar in 3-D at — yes — my neighborhood theater three blocks away. I was excited, having been almost resigned to the fact that I might end up watching this movie on DVD. Before leaving my apartment, I downloaded the Avatar transcript onto the iPhone through my home Wi-Fi. You can also do it through the iPhone’s 3G connection, however, service can be spotty in New York City, so it was safer to do it from home first.
With Subtitles, the first line appears on the iPhone screen as white letters on a black background –- an appropriate color combination for a dark theater environment. I was able to adjust the brightness of the white letters, which is useful if those sitting next to me do not want to be distracted. Fortunately, there were only five people in the theater, so I didn’t have to worry about it.
The app has Play and Stop buttons, and buttons for moving the transcript one line forward or backward. There is also a nifty feature for positioning the active line anywhere on the screen. The scrolling speed synced nicely with the timing of the lines in the movie. For example, if there is a pause in the dialogue, the scrolling freezes until the next line is spoken in the movie.
However, from a quality perspective the app had a few shortcomings. First, I had to wait for the first line of the movie to be uttered before hitting Play. This very basic feature can be problematic for those who have difficulty hearing words and may miss the first line. In Avatar, the first several lines were comprised of a male voiceover, complemented by a sweeping aerial shot of a beautiful, tropical mountainscape. I had to listen carefully before hitting the Play button, and would have preferred the scrolling to start on its own through an electronic trigger such as voice recognition, which the iPhone is equipped to perform.
The quality of the captions is also very basic. There is no identification of the speaker (e.g. Jake: While I was lying there in the VA hospital), and there are no descriptive words for sounds on-screen (e.g. “[phone ringing]” or “[birds chirping]”). For movies with extensive dialogue, this represents a major challenge for deaf moviegoers, particularly those who do not wear hearing aids.
The iPhone screen is small, so I had some trouble positioning the phone in a way that kept me from straining my arms, while still being able to watch both the captions and see the movie screen. I ended up propping it on my legs. I would like to see an accessory that can hold the iPhone so I can completely enjoy the movie-going experience. Of course, with the iPad launch just two weeks away, there is another opportunity to enjoy the Subtitles application on a much bigger screen.
All in all, I am very pleased with Subtitles, and am delighted that captioning has finally migrated to a mobile platform like the iPhone, with similar possibilities on the Blackberry and Android platforms given OpenSubtitles.org’s role as an open-source database of movie transcripts. And Daniel Walker, the developer of the Subtitles application, is constantly seeking feedback and improving his application.
In the next iteration of Subtitles and other mobile captioning platforms, I would like to see speaker identification, descriptions of ambient sounds, and other improvements. Until then, I’m heading off to see Alice in Wonderland. No more waiting for box-office movies to reach DVD!