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Pixar's New App Gives the Blind a New Way to Experience Movies

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Attendees arrive at Pixar's 'Red Carpet, White Canes" screening event to test out the new app. (Guide Dogs for the Blind/Flickr)

While we all love going to the movies, the experience often becomes a huge challenge for the blind and low-vision community when the visual aids provided by theaters are broken (or can't even be found). Fortunately, that may be about to change.

Pixar Studios is developing an app that syncs your phone with a narration track. Interspersed between segments of dialogue, it describes what’s happening on-screen -- characters, action, costumes -- through your headphones.

Last month, Pixar threw a party at their Emeryville headquarters to test out the new app, in collaboration with Bay Area non-profits like LightHouse for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs. Complete with an expansive red carpet, the event was a Gatsby-like dazzle of light and noise, flashing cameras and a whole fleet of seeing-eye dogs. The evening culminated in a screening of "The Good Dinosaur."

There are definitely some kinks to be worked out. A large portion of the audience -- sighted and non-sighted alike -- had trouble downloading it onto their phones. But thanks to a few Pixar employees, looking only mildly nervous, everyone soon had it working. Lisamaria Martinez, the director of community services at the LightHouse for the Blind, explained that it offered great improvements over current visual aids.

Attendees walk into the theater at “The Good Dinosaur" screening event at Pixar headquarters.
Attendees walk into the theater at “The Good Dinosaur" screening event at Pixar headquarters. (Guide Dogs for the Blind/Flickr)

"Often I'm handed the handset for the hard of hearing,” she said. “Then I have to rely on the fact that they've charged the device...and that they've turned on the audio-description tracks. A lot of times they don't and I have to go look for someone...and I've lost the first 15 minutes of the movie."


Going to movies with her four-year-old is particularly discouraging.

"My kid’s a pretty smart kid, and he asks lots of questions: Mommy, what was that? How do I explain something that needs explaining when I don't even know it happened?"

As the film began and animated talking dinosaurs galloped across the screen, the theater filled with laughter. Many folks who had never fully followed a film before suddenly knew what was happening. Read in an almost comical monotone, the female narration track was concise and dry -- a bit like IKEA instructions. Here's an example: “A bush rustled nearby. Arlo hides. A fully-grown chicken-like dinosaur with red eyes looms over them."

Yet no one seemed to mind the hollow voice, and when the lights came up, the applause was raucous. Ms. Martinez was excited by how thorough the narration was.

"During the movie,” she explained, “I realized that it had dialogue, [but] not nearly as much as other movies. If that wasn’t there, I’d be so lost. Being able to have accessibility in my own power, it’s empowering to me."

For much of the audience, Pixar's new app offers much more than a chance to merely follow along. It offers the possibility of a drastic change -- that a group of people who have long been left out of a full movie experience can finally feel included.

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