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iPhone App Delivers Movie Captions On the Go

March 26 2010 | by

Orange balloon icon for Subtitles application

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.

Home Screen for Subtitles iPhone application

Subtitles' Home Screen

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.

Captions with Controls

Caption screen with controls.

Captions without Controls

Captions without controls, for better viewing.

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!

  • Mike Kelley

    Thanks for the review. I’m pretty sure speaker identification is coded in the subtitle file itself, and not the app. You’ll have to wait until a different subtitle for that title is available from OpenSubs that has speaker identification and ambient sounds.

    Thanks again for the review, it was a great read!

  • Inez

    Mike–how wonderful, even with the flaws. Now you too can see first runs like those of us who hear.Sounds like this solves lots of the problems around open captioning=-although still a compromise.

  • Iowan

    Holy cow! I’m so getting this ASAP!

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  • http://lancepicket.blogspot.com Lance

    I love this app also, keep in mind that Dan Walker, the developer does not write the subtitles, they are written by various people around the world. So basically we are at the mercy of those who wrote the subtitles and submitted them to OpenSubtitles.org. As a result there will be typos, errors, and time sync issues. Some will have names like you wanted while others won’t.

    So without judging the subtitles I think this app is fantastic!

    lance

  • http://michaeljanger.com Michael Janger

    Thank you for the comments on my article. I am aware that the quality and formatting of the transcripts are not under the developer’s control, but I should have been more clear in my article. I had referred to OpenSubtitles.org’s role as a provider of transcripts, which Dan Walker utilized for his innovative application, and mentioned at the end of my review my desire to see better-quality transcripts either in the Subtitles app and/or on other future mobile captioning applications that could be developed for the Blackberry and Android phones.

    After I posted this article, I was made aware that transcripts on OpenSubtitles.org are available in a variety of formats, including “for the hearing impaired.” Whether that means it is available for every movie, and if it includes both ambient sound descriptions and speaker identification, I will find out. At the moment, as far as I can gather, the captions I have seen do not include the above features.

  • ls

    Can you further clarify this please?
    The “transcripts’ are available free, from the opensubtitles page?
    That site is safe? e.g. some of the ads are off-putting.
    Hope to learn more,
    LS

  • Fadi Adel El-Rayes

    this is awesome. any idea if this is workable in middle east?

  • http://michaeljanger.com Michael Janger

    @LS – the transcripts are available free. The cost of downloading the Subtitles app on the iPhone is $0.99. You do not need to go to the opensubtitles.org page to download the transcripts, if you already have the app on the iPhone. All the app does is download the transcripts and no advertisements are involved.

    @Fadi Adel El-Rayes – The app should work globally. As long as you have an iPhone and either Wi-Fi or 3G access where you are, you should be able to download the transcript in the language you choose, keep it on your iPhone, and bring the device to any movie theater.

  • admin

    Fadi,

    I will find out for you.

    Thank you
    Suzanne

  • Nick

    smalldog.comAs for a device to hold the iPhone while in a movie theater… Joby (gorilla pod fame) makes an iPhone holder, and you could probably use that to affix the iPhone to the seat in front of you.

    http://www.smalldog.com/product/75418/joby-gorillamobile-iphone-3g-3gs/atfgc

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  • http://www.hearingaidknow.com Steve

    That’s a good idea for an app and I’ll give it a try. Seems like it would be difficult to read the subs and watch the screen at the same time though?

  • Faima06

    Hi, Excerpt: “I would like to see speaker identification.”

    Then why don’t you use HI (hearing impaired) subtitles? You probably downloaded non HI version subtitles that have stripped HI notations. HI and non HI versions are always available for most movies at opensubtitles. Maybe you should give feedback to the app producer to be able to find HI version subtitles if you prefer them and the option isn’t already available. Best regards

  • Danka58

    A great effort on the developer’s part. Keep in mind that not all subs are available as it’s sourced by opensubtitles.org.

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