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Are Subtitle Glasses the Wave of the Future?

written by: KennethSleight•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 11/27/2011

Sony is attempting to address an issue in the movie theater, but it doesn’t have anything to do with picture or sound quality. They are focusing on a niche of society that is often ignored - the deaf and hard of hearing. The issue at hand, movie subtitles. Sony's solution? Subtitle glasses.

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    subtitle glasses Would you wear subtitle glasses? I bet you would if you were hearing impaired. Why? They would allow you to watch new release movies immediately, instead of having to wait two weeks for a subtitled version to be released - and even then it’s often only at odd times, like mid-day Tuesday or a random midnight showing (if at all).

    Why would Sony be interested in such a minor niche? About 4% of the total population of the Earth has significant hearing difficulty. That’s nearly 280 million people! 16 million of those are in the USA alone. Sony is betting that theater owners will pay for their glasses to bring in cutomers who are hard of hearing. It’s the simple “see a need, fill a need” philosophy at work – to the tune of $160 million a year if each person only goes to see even one movie they otherwise wouldn’t have (at $10 a ticket). That profit doesn't even count potential concessions sales, where the real money is made.

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    How do Subtitle Glasses Work?

    Now that we know why these glasses are being made, how do they work? The tech behind these is nothing new. In fact, it’s been used in the automotive industry for at least three years. A small projector mounted on the frame of the glasses projects the subtitles onto the interior face of the lens. The words are projected in a way that makes them appear to be off in the distance (on the movie screen), so the viewer doesn’t have to change focus while watching the film to read the captions. The prototype models that have been tested use green lettering for the subtitles, so the words are able to be read against a number of backgrounds. They are connected to a computer via a Wi-Fi internet connection, so one pair of glasses can be used for multiple movies in the same theater.

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    Are There Limitations to Their Use?

    While these glasses are a fantastic development for hard of hearing movie patrons, they do have their limitations. These devices need to remain within range of the wireless network which is hosting the subtitle software. Theater design may require that people wearing the glass sit in designated locations, so the glasses can pick up the wireless network signal.

    These aren’t magical glasses. They don’t translate spoken words into writing (although there is research pointing in that direction by integrating voice recognition software into the overall design). The subtitles need to be coded by hand, and loaded into the host software before the glasses can be used with a film. Also, the subtitle program has to be started in sync with the film, or the subtitles will appear at the wrong time, or with a delay (similar to audio lag when the audio and video are not synced correctly).

    Subtitle glasses are not compatible with 3D screens as of yet (unless you are a die-hard fan and want to try wearing two pairs of specialized glasses at once). Hearing impaired patrons that already wear glasses are in the same boat (and let's not even think about the person wearing their glasses with subtitle glass and 3D glasses). These are all limitations that will have to be handled once the prototype have been field tested.

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    More Than the Deaf Can Benefit

    While it may seem weird in America, people in other parts of the world have grown accustomed to watching movies with integrated subtitles. This is especially true in countries where English isn’t the native language. While these glasses wouldn’t find much of a market in those countries, first generation immigrants may find them invaluable. The key for them would be getting subtitles in their native language, which isn’t available yet.

    There are several different disorders that make it hard to discern individual voices in a crowd. These subtitle glasses would take care of that problem as well. Those with Sensori-Neural Impairment or Central Impairment could understand the movie better than everyday conversations.

    The biggest market, though, is that of the tourist. Imagine being in another country and wanting desperately to see the new blockbuster that was just released. These glasses would be a godsend if the film was only showing a dubbed version. American tourists might be the one facet of global society that pushes this new theater tech into the mainstream.

    Other than the companies who supply these glasses, who are the biggest winners if they go global? Everyday movie patrons. There will be no push to move subtitled movies to mainstream times as the glasses would eliminate the need for the subtitles on the screen. While they may never realize the debt they owe to the technology in the glasses, it will keep their status quo in-tact.

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    Now Would You Wear Them?

    While they may look like nerdy throwbacks, these glasses really could change the way that moviegoers see films. Would you wear subtitle glasses even if you weren’t hearing impaired? I know some people who simply like to have the subtitles on when they watch television shows, so they don’t misunderstand the dialogue. This may be one of the unintended fringe markets that these glasses hit - the completely hearing capable audience that wants the security blanket of a subtitle.

    What are your thoughts? Visit the comments section below, and let us know.