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

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.

“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?”

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