Actiview aims to streamline movie accessibility for millions of hearing and vision impaired

Most people don’t have to think very hard about going to see the latest movie in the theater, but for millions of Americans, things aren’t that simple. If you’re hearing or vision impaired, getting the necessary apparatus to provide you with amplified sound or scene descriptions can be a real pain, if they’re even available.

Actiview is a startup aiming to make accessibility in movie-going as simple as opening an app. And to kick-start the venture, it’s going to be available for the nation-wide debut of Cars 3.

The problem is simply that the technology used for accessibility hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the world. The custom hardware setups, from established cinema audio and infrastructure companies, are clunky and expensive; a theater may pay thousands to get enough gear to be in compliance with accessibility laws.

And although some technically interesting solutions exist, like Sony’s closed-captioning glasses, it’s usually a chore to get them — it can take half an hour for the manager to be found and the devices to be set up. And while one theater may have one device, another may have a second, or none at all.

Sony’s AR subtitles are neat, but expensive and pretty clunky.

Was there really no solution that provides every form of accessible content easily to anyone who needed it? Alex Koren thinks you have that solution in your pocket already.

“My phone is such a lifeline on a daily basis, why can’t I use that?” said Koren in an interview with TechCrunch. “Industry veterans recognize this, but it falls by the wayside.”

The phone could show captions, it could carry audio, multiple languages, scene descriptions, all provided from a central server under the control of the theater.

So Koren and his co-founder, Braun Shedd, decided to make it happen. They were joined by Paul Cichocki, who worked in post-production at Pixar for 17 years. But it was immediately clear that they couldn’t just jump into a space dominated by established industry companies.

Theater chains didn’t want to give access to their systems, and studios didn’t want to hand over raw files for testing. Piracy is a problem, after all, and even if they deigned to send over master files for an old film, were they likely to just include Actiview in the close-knit club of trusted distributors and cinema chains?

And because different studios or theaters use different formats or setups (strange ones, the company found from a little reverse engineering), there was no easy one-size-fits-all way to get audio — until it left the system, coming out of the speakers in a waveform. Early attempts to retransmit this resulted in two full seconds of latency — unacceptable in a theater.

Koren and Shedd took the problem head-on, creating a super-low-latency transmission protocol they call Lightspeed Audio Streaming Technology. It transmits sound over Wi-Fi with almost no buffering at all, more like an analog transmission than anything. (The details are a trade secret, of course, but it’s explained in a bit more detail here.)

All the theater needs is a box the size of a large book that plugs into their AV system and generates the wireless network. All the user needs is an app, in which they can select their movie and what content they need: scene descriptions for visually impaired, amplified audio and/or subtitles for the hearing impaired, other languages, even sign language.

There’s also a flexible cup holder mount that holds your phone in place and blocks the light so it doesn’t bother other people. That’s still much easier to deploy than a battery-powered AR subtitling headset.

The theater would pay for the installation of the box (a couple hundred bucks) and then pay per use, almost certainly saving money and time over the alternatives.

A prototype of the wi-fi box and a few cup holder mounts.

Need the job to get the experience to get the job

Of course, you can’t just waltz into the national cinema world, even if your system is cool. But you need to prove yourself in the national cinema world for anyone to consider your platform to begin with.

To break this cycle commonly encountered by startups, the company first partnered with a couple small theaters in the Bay Area. There the developers received feedback and cleared out bugs. People using it definitely like it, Koren said. And through their industry connections, they gained audiences with the major studios and theater chains. But the big break came when Pixar decided to give the tech a shot.

It no doubt made its way through the grapevine that Cichoki was working on Actiview, and Koren told me that a Pixar employee with a personal interest in assisting the visually impaired brought it up internally. After some negotiation, Pixar consented to allow Actiview to support Cars 3 at its debut — at least with amplified audio and scene descriptions.

It’s not an official partnership or anything, but Pixar is definitely taking a step other studios haven’t yet.

“If this all goes well, we’ll be able to make a case for more movies. For every download of the app, we make a better case to Hollywood that this is worth it,” said Koren.

This large-scale rollout could be the break Actiview needs both to gain exposure and prove that the system works.

Unfortunately, this first major exercise of the system won’t have full subtitles or ASL, since Pixar didn’t provided them (yet, anyway). But those are far more simple to implement and have already been shown in smaller theaters, so deaf folks don’t need to worry — they haven’t been forgotten. In fact, the app (designed to be accessible itself, naturally) alerts new users that they can expect these other tracks in features to come.

A broader accessibility platform

While movies are an obvious play for this kind of accessibility tech, Actiview is keen to take on more media later. “Movies are just the first place we’re going,” Koren said. “We imagine a world where basketball and baseball games, and live theater are all accessible like this.”

The strategy is simply to show that yes, in fact, there are millions of visually and hearing impaired people who really want to pay for tickets but aren’t being accommodated. And by making the ability to accommodate them easy and affordable, no one is left out on either side of the bargain.

Part of the plan is to bring the content to the cloud, as well (you didn’t think we were getting through a thousand words without saying “cloud,” did you?) — because Actiview also aims to be an accessibility option for when you’re watching movies and TV at home.

Companies like Netflix might offer accessibility tracks like scene descriptions for its own shows, but that’s by no means the rule. A relatively cheap subscription service (think around $3 a month, or perhaps freemium) would provide users access to a full library of closed captioning, ASL accompaniment, and other options.

As a final incentive, there are new regulations taking effect in 2018 that introduce more stringent requirements for theaters: they’ll need audio descriptions and closed captioning as well as basic assistive listening apparatus. It just so happens that Actiview provides compliance with those requirements for considerably less than other options on the market — and since it’s a software platform, it can be updated to reflect new regulations or offer new services.

So if the prospects of helping people, saving money, and increasing ticket sales don’t tickle a particular theater’s fancy, perhaps the opportunity to not be in violation of disability regulations will!

Apart from making its public debut with Cars 3, Actiview is raising money. The company raised $225K from a collection of angel investors in the media and accessibility space, including Mike White, former CEO of DirecTV and San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind. Now the goal is $1.5 million, which will help pay for manufacturing the various pieces — designed internally and ready to build, it should be added — and staffing the company as it grows towards its next challenge.

Koren is confident: “I’ve been super happy with our investors and we’re confident it won’t be a stretch to raise,” he said.

It’s a modest amount to ask for these days, especially for a hardware startup, but the potential is there to be a major company — and more importantly, to have a real positive effect on groups that are frequently forgotten by Silicon Valley’s vaunted innovators.

Actiview should be available for download very soon; and try telling your local theater about it — it may very well be exactly what they’ve been waiting for.