Close Encounters With Rear Window Captioning

Dave and I like gadgets and technology. Talk about DVRs and computers and whatnot, and our eyes light up. So when we first heard of rear window captioning, back in the late 90s, we were intrigued.

At that time, for us, a movie in a theater was heard through the finicky ALDs that most theaters have.  You know, the ones that look like stethoscopes with a dial hanging down on your chest, to adjust volume.  For people with so-so hearing, it means sticking the earbuds in your ears.  For me and Dave, it meant switching your hearing aid to t-coil, then trying to hold the earbud thingy up against the hearing aid microphone, on top of our ears, since the earmold was filling our ear canal.  Half the time the ALDs would work, other times we’d get nothing and give up.  So the idea of seeing captions on a nifty device that would reflect them for us really appealed to us!

Alas, no theaters in our immediate area had rear window captioning (RWC) so we kind of forgot about it.  Then open captioning (OC) came to town, to a local theater no less, and we were hooked.  This means that the captions are right on the movie screen, so everyone can see them (no special device needed).  The only catch is that you usually have to wait until a movie’s been out for a few weeks before it’s offered in an OC version and, at least in our local theater, it’s offered at the most for a weekend (Fri.-Sun.), one showing per day, most often a matinee.

For me and Dave, this is fine because our schedules are flexible and we can easily catch a matinee showing (plus, it’s cheaper).  We don’t mind waiting to see a movie so missing opening weekend is no big deal.  We’re also lucky to have a theater nearby that shows OC movies each weekend (we go to the local Marcus Theater).

This weekend, though, Paige is here celebrating her 15th birthday.  We really wanted to take her to a movie but the only open captioned movie this weekend was one we weren’t interested in.  We couldn’t be flexible because we just had Saturday and Sunday to work with, so I pulled up to see what other theaters in our area were offering.  We saw that Julie & Julia was playing in a theater about 20 miles away, with RWC.  Finally, a chance to try it out!

We got to the theater and my first impression was confusion.  The RWC viewing of Julie & Julia was listed first on the board where they have all the movies and showtimes listed, but instead of saying anything about captioning or hearing impaired, it was denoted with a !* in front of the movie name.  Pretty cryptic.

There were no signs announcing the availability of RWC, so if you didn’t already know about it, you’d be clueless.  We got our tickets, and Dave had to specifically ask where to get the devices.  We went from the window to the “Guest Services” area, where they rip your ticket and send you through to the theater, and asked for the devices.  Paige was going to get one as well, because she grew up with captions on the TV and actually prefers them now, but I think she got shy when she saw how conspicuous they were.  I asked her and she said she didn’t want to have to look from the device up to the screen.  Okay, no problem – Dave and I grabbed our big ole RWC devices and headed to the snack stand.

I realized right away that I couldn’t get a drink, because my device would be resting in the cup holder of my seat.  We got a small popcorn to share, got Paige her Twizzlers and pop, and headed off to find the theater.

As we walked in to a fairly full theater, we realized we were the only people with the RWC devices.  That surprised me a bit, to be honest.  I had read somewhere that sitting in the center of the theater offered better placement of the captions, so we found some center seats and got settled.  I tried to take pictures of our RWC contraptions with my camera phone, but it was much too dark to get a usable photo.  So picture this…a fairly heavy metal base, kind of an inverted wide cone shape, that sits in the cup holder attached to your seat.  Embedded in the base is a thick metal coil (Dave calls it flexible conduit) that you can bend into position.  (Think of those lamps where you can bend and twist the light into position.)  At the end of the conduit is a rectangular, shaded piece of Plexiglas.  When we received our thingamajigs, they were both standing straight up.  Once we sat down, we realized that if we left the devices that way then the words would be reflected into the middle of the movie screen…not cool.

They recommend that you get to the theater early to get a chance to play around with the device and find the best position, in order to see both the captions and the screen.  This is good advice and I am passing it along.  I bent, twisted, shifted in my seat and finally got my device to reflect the captions at the bottom right corner of the screen.  Poor Dave, though, bent his device down and then up a bit…and it drooooooped down, like a dying plant.  He played around with it, fiddling this way and that, and it would not hold position.  Finally, he crossed his legs and just held it in position through the whole movie.  (I guess he figured it wasn’t worth the long trek back to Guest Services to exchange it for a hopefully less-flaccid one.)

I did have a moment of panic as we were driving to the theater, because I realized I forgot my reading glasses at home.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to read the captions since they were placed closer to my face (captions on a movie or TV screen are no problem for me).  Luckily though, it wasn’t a problem and I was able to read them just fine.

During the previews and other things they show before the movie starts, they would periodically turn the captioning on.  It said something like, “Welcome to Rear Window Captioning.  Please adjust your devices.”  This gave us a chance to see where the captioning was going to be, and move the device around before the actual movie started.  I originally didn’t notice this – Dave had to point it out for me.  I was surprised at how flexible it could be – you could actually watch movie through the Plexiglas if you wanted to, or you could angle the captions waaay down at the bottom, the way I did.

It took some getting used to, glancing from the screen to the device.  My first impression was that the captions left the screen so quickly.  I’m used to being able to watch the screen, take everything in, and then glance down at the captioning to catch any dialogue I missed.  With RWC, the captions flash on and off so quickly that you can’t do that or you’ll miss the captions.

On our devices, the captions were in red so if you had the device lined up at the bottom of the movie screen and the background was orange or red, it made it really hard to read the words.

All in all, it was an okay experience.  I vastly prefer open captions, and so does Dave.  He disliked the RWC more than I did, probably because his device was so temperamental.  My experience wasn’t bad enough to say I would never see another RWC movie again – it’s still a vast improvement over the ALDS.

Apparently, the people behind us were wondering what the devices were.  Paige said they asked about them, but I had no idea – she was sitting two seats away from me so it must have been the people behind her, and I didn’t hear them talking.  I guess they asked her and she explained that they reflected captions for us, then showed them the reflector in the back of the theater that was showing the captions.

I always like knowing people are being educated about these kinds of things but I’m still disappointed that the theater didn’t have posters or signs showing the RWC devices and what they would do.  I’m sure more people would use them if they had any idea they were available!


About wendiwendy

I'm a real-life bionic woman.

Posted on August 16, 2009, in Cochlear Implants & Hearing Loss, Observations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I *adore* rear window captions. My local theater, which has 12 screening rooms, has only one set up for RWC, and it’s always a first run (though usually not *my* choice but an assumed-will-be-popular choice, like an Adam Sandler movie, etc.). If it’s a movie I want to see, I have to see it that first week because it’s only in that room for one week.

    This theater *never* shows the smaller indies that I want to see, unfortunately.

    They used to have these huge headphones, but all they did was amplify sound, and they never worked with my hearing aids. If I left them in, I’d get feedback; if I took them out, the headphones weren’t enough. So I was thrilled when RWC came along. I am quite used to where I need to position the plexiglass, and I’ve never gotten a “flaccid” neck (LOL on your choice of words!)



  2. Interesting post, Wendi. I’ve only experienced open captions and I have to drive about 45 minutes to see those shows which are only available on a weeknight twice a month. Thank you for mentioning your local Marcus theatre shows open captions. I live very close to a Marcus theatre so I will have to contact them to see if they would consider open captions. I guess rear window captions are better than nothing but it sounds like there is room for improvement!


  3. Hi Wendi,
    I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who has both an OC theater and RWC theater not so far away. Like you I much prefer OC, but my schedule isn’t as flexible as yours. My only real complaint is the times they show the movies. I don’t care for RWC for all the reasons you mentioned— having to get there early so you can ask for the equipment. Too often you have to hunt someone down to help. The drink holder is taken up with your equipment so if you’re thirsty you have to balance your cup in your lap the entire time. The equipment isn’t always well maintained, as Dave found out, and it’s often dirty. Theater staff don’t really know how to use it so they can’t help you with it. Finding a good spot to sit can be problematic if the theater is crowded.

    However, we need to remember one thing. Accessibility comes in small steps. At least that theater makes an effort.


  4. Unfortunately we don’t have either OC or RVC and it’d be neat to see one at the theater here. Either they don’t think there’s much use for it or that kind of technology is new to our area.

    Sounds like OC is better. Reading red letters in a darkened room must be hard. I wonder how big the letters are??

    Thanks for sharing your experience.


  5. I find RWC a great exercise for your eyes… focus-near, focus-far, repeat for 2 hours! That said, I much prefer OC better, but could get used to RWC and it’s better than nothing. They Should have posters explaining about the systems!

    I’ve gotten into going to foreign films lately too. The stories are usually more interesting than what hollywood puts out, and everyone needs the subtitles unless they know that language.


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