Cinema Accessible Signing Standard a Bad Idea

Several people wrote asking about standards for sign language display in cinemas. This may sound contradictory coming from the person who drove standards for closed captions in cinema, but the call for sign language standards is not the right path. I’ll explain why.

Cinema closed captions were first introduced in the 90’s with the WGBH Rear Window Captioning system. It was based on the clever idea of hanging a large digital text display in the rear of the auditorium, and placing a reflector at those seats where the closed caption was to be delivered. The reflector would be positioned at the seat by the audience member to capture the light of the rear display, allowing the audience member to see the closed caption text in front of them. The key point to remember is that this wasn’t a system one could put in his or her pocket. It had to be purchased and installed by the cinema owner.

The market for the Rear Window system was driven by the passing in 1990 of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Notably, the ADA assigns the burden of providing access for those with disabilities to the public facing entity. For movie theaters, it could be (and was) argued that with the availability of the Rear Window Captioning system, theater owners were liable to install them. Numerous cinema owners complied. But these were expensive systems, and it was not practical to install them in every auditorium. Further, the WGBH business model restricted competition, keeping the cost high, and further limiting its use. Overall, the WGBH system was a step in the right direction for those with disabilities, but it was by no means ideal, including for the cinema owner.

With the rollout of digital cinema, it was possible to enable closed captions in new ways. Smart phone technology had not yet emerged when we studied the steps needed for a standard. Looking back, the first iPhone was sold four months after the release of the SMPTE D-Cinema Closed Captions Study Group Report, back in 2007. The style of solution that would empower cinema owners with competitive solutions was to include the closed closed caption text in the Composition. (If you aren’t familiar with the Composition, see Cinepedia.) The closed caption text would be passed to competitive closed caption systems using a standardized protocol that would be made available in all digital cinema servers. This worked. The standardized protocol, generally known as CSP/RPL, is available in all digital cinema systems today, and in particular, is actively in use in the US and Canadian markets.

Sign language for cinema is a new innovation. I’m told by multiple sources (but unable to confirm) that Brazil and France will soon require support for sign language display in cinemas. Interest has been expressed in standards. But, unlike 10 years ago when the SMPTE Study Group report was published, we’re in a world where smart phones are prevalent. Clever apps for smart phones have been available for some time that will synchronize and display closed captions to the user. Many of these same app providers are pursuing the display of sign language.

There are mixed reactions to the existence of accessibility apps on personal smart phones. Some view smart phones and accessibility apps as a problem. I say this is a step in the right direction.

The purpose of personal apps is to insure that those with disabilities are not disenfranchised. For many with disabilities, the phone is an important tool. Rather than circumvent its usage, and disenfranchise the app providers themselves, it would be smarter to allow the apps to take their course. If there are complaints about smart phone usage in cinemas, it would mean two things. First, the technology is working, and users are presumably getting what they need. And second, it would give the technology providers behind the apps the incentive to devise ways to address the complaints. If addressing the complaints leads to standards, then so be it. But let’s wait for that conversation to take place, if it ever does.

Rather than disenfranchise the sign language app companies that are already doing the work, it would be smarter to encourage and support them. By doing so, it removes the burden of investment from cinema owners, while enabling a more personal experience for those with disabilities. Let’s wait and see how this evolves before determining the need for distribution standards.