The Custom Installer: Getting It Loud and Clear

My grandmother, Thelma Perkins, passed away at the end of December. I was her eldest grandchild, and we were very close. I believe that the time I spent with her helped make me the person I am today. My Gram spoiled me, keeping her house stocked with my favorite junk food, taking me on trips, and staying up all hours playing cards with me.

We also shared a love for TV and movies. Growing up, I routinely spent Friday nights at Gram's, where we watched The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas, and baseball and football. We'd also visit the cinema at the nearby mall.

Sadly, as my grandmother's health deteriorated, her vision fared particularly poorly, and it became all but impossible for her to watch television. Knowing that my job involved TVs, Gram asked if there was anything I could do to help her out. She had a fairly typical viewing environment - TV in the corner, drapes drawn in the front and sides of the room, light coming from a lamp on the end table and from a fixture in the kitchen, which was located behind the couch where she sat.

These are harsh viewing conditions even for someone with good vision. When a TV is nestled in a dark corner, the bright screen acts like a flashlight, making you want to squint as the iris in your eye opens and closes dramatically to compensate for the changes from bright to dark scenes. Having lights on anywhere in front of the TV causes glare on the screen, which in turn causes eye fatigue. Conditions like these can make long-term viewing very uncomfortable.

To help my grandmother out, I brought the TV closer to her and placed a dimmable lamp in the corner behind the set, bathing the wall with light. Having a "bias" light in back of the TV reduces the iris muscle's range of motion, resulting in more relaxed viewing. Dimming the light behind where she sat cut down screen glare, while raising the TV's brightness control allowed her to see more detail.

Using the biggest possible screen definitely makes viewing easier for someone with poor eyesight. Also, sets using new technologies like DLP, LCD, and plasma produce large, incredibly bright pictures. But when a large screen isn't practical, moving the TV closer offers similar results. Some LCD sets are so small and light that you can easily hold them in your lap.

Even people with significantly impaired vision can still enjoy movies. For instance, the audio cues in a surround soundtrack can give a strong sense of the onscreen action. Another terrific option is the Descriptive Video Service. Produced by the Media Access Group at Boston PBS station WGBH, this is like closed captioning for the visually impaired, offering a complete description of the program without covering the dialogue. A list of encoded movies and documentaries can be found at main.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/mag/resources/archive/ by clicking on the "dvs-home-video-catalogue" link. DVS titles have been available only on VHS tape, but one of the first DVS-enhanced DVDs is Ray, starring Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx. How appropriate!

If hearing is the problem, modern technology has a few things that can help. Everyone is familiar with closed captioning, and the necessary decoders have been standard in all TVs sold in the U.S. since 1993. Also, practically every DVD includes subtitles. But beyond just reading the movie, using a subwoofer can help you feel it as well. By adding the tactile sensation of floor- and chest-rattling bass, a sub can make the experience far more entertaining.

Another great solution is wireless headphones. Since they focus the sound right into the ear, headphones allow someone with limited hearing to watch a movie or TV show loud enough so he can hear while others in the room watch at a lower volume.

Even people with normal hearing often complain that they can't hear dialogue. Nearly every receiver carrying the Dolby Digital logo lets you independently adjust the volume for each speaker channel. While you would normally set all the speakers to the same level, you can use this feature to boost the volume for the center speaker, which usually carries the dialogue.

But boosting the center channel might not suffice if you watch a lot of movies and shows that have quiet dialogue. Here a Dolby Digital feature called Night Mode or Dynamic Range Control could be useful. Found on many receivers and DVD players, it reduces loud sounds and raises quiet ones so that they're at a more uniform volume.

Nearly everybody likes watching movies and TV shows, and these experiences can help bring together people of all ages. I cherish the times I spent sitting next to my Gram watching a show and sharing a bowl of Cheetos (her favorite snack). Hopefully, future medical and technological breakthroughs will put an end to all disabilities, but for now, I hope these tips will make life more enjoyable.

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