Bitmap standard under review following Senator Harkin’s call for IFE closed captioning

September 24, 2013


generic hearing 540x300 Bitmap standard under review following Senator Harkins call for IFE closed captioning

Those of us who regularly fly in economy class know all too well the indignities associated with long-haul air travel. But even so, we’re simply a movie selection or audio soundtrack selection away from being transported to a different reality. That is the case, at least, for passengers who can hear. More often than not, the deaf and hard of hearing do not have a closed captioning (CC) option on their IFE.

In February 2006 the US DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to require airlines flying in and out of the US to provide CC on all video content. At that time, APEX (then WAEA) discovered that the DOT wrongly believed video monitors on aircraft functioned like televisions on the ground, where CC could be simply turned on and off with – as the NPRM suggested – “the pressing of buttons that already exist on the television and audio-visual equipment”, notes Michael Childers, a long-time industry consultant who engaged the DOT during this period, and who now chairs the APEX Technology Committee.

WAEA advised the DOT that open captions “must be ‘burned into’ the video frame and are neither system-controllable, nor (in the case of personal video screens) seat-controllable”. It proposed deferring requirements until “four years after the effective date of this rule”, since the industry was migrating to MPEG-4, which was expected to offer improved options for the implementation of CC. In 2009, the DOT reluctantly concluded that providing high-contrast captions for entertainment displays was not yet technically and economically feasible.

In March of this year US Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put accessibility standards back in the spotlight when he introduced two bills that would expand access to captioning and image narration in movie theatres and airplanes. APEX is uniquely positioned to propose a viable solution for all involved, as its Digital Content Management Working Group (DCMWG) already has an existing bitmap standard, ‘APEX 0403’, that is available to airlines from Panasonic, Thales, Lumexis and others. But airlines have not used the standard. The question, as to the standard, is whether it is the best and only. Timed Text may be more suitable for ASCII text on domestic airlines.

The Technology Committee has reached out to Senator Harkin and other government stakeholders to move the conversation forward. “I believe that we can provide a real service for the hard-of-hearing passenger but via technologies that are more affordable to airlines than those we were limited to 10 years ago,” says Childers.

Change can’t come soon enough. Advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing are calling for all aural announcements on the plane as well as at the airport to be captioned. The industry must listen to what they have to say. And regulators like Senator Harkin will doubtlessly ensure that it does.

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About Mary Kirby

Editor in Chief - APEX Media Platform | Previously Senior Editor at Flight International where she led the magazine's coverage of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) and aircraft interiors | Former proprietor of the highly-regarded Runway Girl blog, which focused on the passenger experience | Regularly speaks at industry conferences about airborne communications, ancillary revenue opportunities for airlines and social media | You can connect with Mary on Twitter, LinkedIn

View all posts by Mary Kirby

3 Responses to “Bitmap standard under review following Senator Harkin’s call for IFE closed captioning”

  1. Phil Watson Says:

    It is false to state that airlines have not used the existing CC standard in 0403, based on the DVD captioning standard. It has been offered for years, and airlines have indeed been using it. But airlines must pay extra for the captions so it is not broadly ordered/applied.

    As I stated in the TC session, if timed text captions become cheaper/more available the existing bitmapped-based systems can easily make use of the captions by converting the captions to the expected format. No change to 0403 is required.

    We must be cautious about adopting a US-centric, English-only captioning standard for our international industry. Bitmapped captions easily allow for any language, any reading direction, any font, any script, without any change to the aircraft system.


  2. Michele Linder Says:

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out why, when flying to and from Germany to the U.S., I have the option (Delta Airlines) of watching an American film dubbed in Japanese with Chinese captions, but I don’t have the option of any English captions or subtitles? Sigh… Once in awhile I’ll find English subtitles on a foreign film, but if there is any English dialogue in the film that portion is not subtitled. Do you know how frustrating it is to watch an hour of a movie and then someone decides to speak in English and the whole experience is blown because that English speaking portion was paramount to the whole plot? Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Those who could makes changes and fail to should be forced to fly on the longest flight available, with a plane full of people who need to see speech. Before take off, the powers that be should be introduced and subjected to the wrath of every single passenger who tried to watch a movie only to find out that there are no captions or usable subtitles. That would be one scary flight!!!

    Captioning allows those with communication barriers to participate, contribute, and complete in the world. Accessibility encourages independence, which is what anyone with a barrier craves, and it puts us on a level playing field with everyone else. Most times, what a thing costs ($$$) is considered over benefit. The reality, more than 48 million people need to see speech… we work, play, travel, live, and spend money just like anyone else, but we don’t have the same things available to us that most people take for granted. It about time we look at accessibility as an investment, worth so much more than the $$$ spent to achieve it.


  3. Sveta Says:

    Great article – I’m glad to see a follow up to a previous one posted half a year ago about importance of air travel accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people.


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