US Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, landmark legislation for accessibility in mobile devices, and potentially the Internet. Among the new law’s features:
- Mandate mobile phone companies to make web browsers, text messaging, and e-mail on smart phones fully accessible.
- Restore and expand requirements for video description of television programs, as well as requiring cable and satellite companies to make their program guides and selection menus accessible to people with vision loss.
- Ensure people with vision loss have access to emergency broadcast information.
- Provide $10 million in funding each year for assistive technology for deaf-blind individuals
- Ensure that Internet-enabled mobile phones are hearing aid compatible.
The new law has no direct impact on cinema, but its indirect impact will be felt in the coming years. The law not only ensures that new smart phone development will include features to support the visually impaired and hearing impaired, it will in turn attract such users to buy smart phones that are so equipped. This, in turn, will lead to audiences that expect their phones to provide them with wireless accessibility in the cinema. For phone-phobic cinema owners, you’ll no doubt find that specialized apps for cinema applications will be able to turn off those big handheld screens and in turn drive Bluetooth-enabled glasses and hearing aids. Rather than buy specialized transmission equipment for the projection booth, a wireless Ethernet router programmed for cinema use will be able to do the trick. For users, it will allow the purchase of the assistive technologies that work best for them, rather than accept the handed out fare that cinema owners would otherwise provide. As smart-phone based systems proliferate, the degree of investment required by the cinema owner to support accessibility should be reduced.
Notably, the law provides a small ($10M) but significant annual funding to encourage development of assistive technologies. The intent is to drive competition for the funding of innovation. One can already buy Bluetooth enabled hearing aids that can be driven by a phone, although they are pricey. With more support from mobile devices and greater demand, prices should come down. Glasses that print text are also emerging. Innovation will lead to cost-cutting improvements.
Transmission to personal accessibility devices is not new. T-coil-based wireless transmission to hearing aids has been around awhile, although probably more popular in Europe than in the US. T-coils, however, are not well suited for cinema. Antennae wire must circle the auditorium, and metal framing in the walls will attenuate the signal. As troublesome, the signal is not modulated on a carrier, so there is no way for the user to isolate one auditorium’s signal from another, or one language from another, or a narrative track (VI-N) from a hearing-impaired track (HI). So while there are those who say that hearing-aid compatible wireless audio transmission is here today for use in the cinema, they are wrong. That capability will only come from new development stemming from the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.