Jamie Pauls

For people with visual impairments, the availability of audio description can be a critical component to enjoying a movie or TV show. Whether you are watching Amazon Prime videos, a Netflix original series, or renting a movie from iTunes, you might rely on an audio description track to tell you what is happening on screen. But what if you're watching with other people and don’t want to ask them to listen to the audio description along with you? After all, the description sometimes jumps a bit ahead of the action in order to make things fit nicely into place, and your fellow viewers might not appreciate the spoiler. For that matter, what happens if you decide to leave the confines of your living room and go to the theater?

Many theaters provide headphones that play the audio description as the movie is in progress, but this equipment is not universally available. Sometimes a theater might have the headphones, but the staff doesn't know how to set it up properly. Sometimes the equipment malfunctions in the middle of a movie. Suffice it to say that accessing audio-described content in the theater is not nearly as ubiquitous or reliable as one would hope.

Over the last few years, a couple app developers have attempted to solve this problem by providing audio description tracks that can be played on a portable device and synced with a movie or television program. Smartphone technology has made this especially compelling, since the microphones on these devices can listen to the movie and automatically synchronize the audio description track. (In the past, you had to listen for a specific cue in the movie, such as a guitar strum, and manually start the audio description track at that point.) Unfortunately, the content on these early apps was quite limited, and they eventually fell by the wayside.

One app that shows promise in the area of providing “portable” audio description, is ActiView developed by Empowered Entertainment. The app is available for free on the Apple app store.

Not only does ActiView provide audio description for people with visual impairments, but it also provides amplified audio and audio description for people with hearing impairments. The app also offers sign language interpretation, closed captioning, translation of the movie’s dialog into various languages, and subtitles.

How It Works

The preceding paragraph might lead you to think that ActiView is a complicated app to use, but nothing could be further from the truth.

When you first open the app, you will find a Search box, a Help button, and a “My Downloads” heading that shows you any movies you have downloaded services for. A service is a file that will play the audio description track, amplified audio track, etc. for the movie you want to watch. More about that later.

The next heading takes you to a list of movies that are currently playing in theaters. At the time of writing, available movies included: Poms, Ugly Dolls, The Best of Enemies, The Upside, Second Act, Mid90s, Wildlife, Pick of the Litter, and Far From the Tree.

Next is a heading labeled “Watch At Home.” At the time of writing, movies under this heading included: Wonder, The Hunger Games,The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Hunger Games – Catching Fire, It Comes At Night, Hereditary, Ladybird, The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Pick of the Litter, Far From the Tree, The Man Who invented Christmas, Megan Leavey, Paterson, Eye in the Sky, Denial, Breathe, Logan Lucky, and Danny Collins.

I currently have amplified audio and audio description for the movie “Room” downloaded to my phone, so the movie title shows up in my Downloaded Movies area rather than under Watch At Home. It will appear in the latter section again once I delete it from my device.

I watched two movies with the ActiView app for this review. Unfortunately, nothing was available at my local theater, so I had to get creative. "Megan Leavey," a true story about a woman who joins the Marines and eventually adopts the bomb detection dog that she works with, was available free with my Amazon Prime subscription, so I double-tapped the movie name in ActiView and downloaded the audio description service. I was able to view information about the movie on the app, including a brief synopsis and where to watch it. I could have activated a button from the information screen that would have taken me to Amazon Prime. Since I couldn’t watch the movie on the same phone I was using to listen to its audio description track, I pulled it up on My iPod Touch. I popped earbuds in and activated the audio description option for the movie in ActiView. I received verbal indications that the app was syncing with the movie playing on my iPod touch. In just a few seconds I was listening to audio description. There are only a few controls to deal with when listening to audio description of a movie, including the ability to mute the description without pausing it. I deliberately paused the movie on my iPod touch, and audio description kept playing on ActiView. There is no button to pause the audio description track, but when I resumed the movie on the iPod touch, I was able to re-sync the description. It didn’t take long for things to line up again. Should I have needed to, I could have made adjustments in the app to move the audio description track backward or forward by a few milliseconds to fix any drift issues that might have occurred.

"Wonder" is a delightful story about a young boy who has a disability that causes his face to be extremely malformed. This movie was also available on Amazon Prime. This time, however, I chose to download the amplified audio and audio description track. I still needed to sync the track with the movie as it played on my BrailleNote Touch, but I was able to listen to the entire movie with earbuds. I eventually noticed that the audio in my earbuds was slightly off from the movie playing on my iPod touch, but I was able to easily adjust the audio on the app so that it lined up perfectly with the audio on the Touch.

Final Thoughts

I was very pleased with the experience I had while using ActiView to watch movies at home. I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to try the app out in a theater. The app’s controls are easy to use, the help system is quite good, and there seems to be a growing number of movies available in the app. I hope that the developers are able to continue adding content on a regular basis, and that it will be kept current. I would also like to see some TV series added as well. The app does not work with broadcast television because commercials would interrupt the audio description. I would like to see a pause button for stopping audio description rather than having to either re-sync or back out of the file that is playing.

Since the app can be used with films watched at home, it could be quite useful for a student in a class where movies are shown. Having exact details on a film could be beneficial in instances where an assignment is associated with the film.

It's necessary to set up a free account when using the app, and according to the Website, there may be a subscription model available soon in order to help with the cost of adding content. I personally won’t have a problem paying a reasonable fee for the service.

Product Information

ActiView is a free iOS app available from Empowered Entertainment. You can get it from the app store.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Jamie Pauls
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Product Reviews and Guides