Santa Barbara International Film Festival: OTOjOy’s Hearing Loops

OTOjOy Fits Film Theaters with Tech for Hearing Impaired

2020 SBIFF Opening Night at the Arlington Theatre. (January 15, 2020) | Credit: Paul Wellman

Most SBIFF-goers take it for granted that, once they manage the gauntlet to get into a theater seat, they’ll be able to see and hear the cinematic goods they came for. But for some, including the hearing impaired, the sensory connection can be a challenge. There is good news on the theatrical sound front, SBIFF-wise.

On Tuesday, January 14, the day before the festival’s official launch, a gathering of press types and others convened at the Fiesta 5 for a special walk-through and test drive of a new hearing loop system now installed in the SBIFF-featured theaters of the Metro 4 and Fiesta 5. Enabled by funding from the Manitou Fund and deploying technology from the locally based and world-renowned company OTOjOy, the system sends signals to patron’s hearing aids or cochlear implants —  any “telecoil-enabled” device.

Hearing-impaired filmgoers, concertgoers, and general-purpose cultural consumers and fans can increasingly enjoy events clarity, now including SBIFF’s main screening venues (the Arlington and the Riviera have previously been loop-equipped).

Hearing loss is a broader issue than we might assume, affecting about 23 percent of the U.S. population, to varying degrees. Hearing loop technologies are in place in many public spaces, especially in Europe and Scandinavia, according to OTOjOy’s head, Thomas Kaufmann. “In Europe, legislation is driving it in some countries,” he explained of the ubiquity of loops overseas. “But in Scandinavian countries, they’re just much more community-minded and take care of their people. Here, things are a lot more profit-driven,” he laughed. His company’s hearing loop system is at once state-of-the-art and reliant on the decades old phenomenon of magnetic induction, which enables a seamless connection to existing hearing aids and implants. 

Also on hand for the hearing loop walkthrough was the Manitou Fund’s Nora McNeely Hurley, who lost her hearing suddenly a decade ago due to inner ear disease, and is an enthusiastic advocate and facilitator for hearing loop technology. In her case, after getting a powerful hearing aid and a cochlear implant, a neighbor enlightened her to the wonders of hearing loops, a great boon for her, as she is an avid music fan (her husband, Michael, is a drummer) and cinema fan. 

Securing the installation in the festival’s primary theaters is a coup in the ongoing process of making public places friendlier to the hearing impaired. Hurley said she hopes to implement the loop to “get hard-of-hearing audiences back in venues, seeing performances and films that they love. It really is a game-changer for people with hearing loss. It’s our dream to loop every single venue in Santa Barbara,” she continued, “so it can be an inspiration to other communities.”

Visitors at the Fiesta on this day strapped into the special headsets with receivers to hear the clarity possible through the loop system. The screen lit up with a short of the current Hollywood fare at the theater, Like a Boss, a sassy entrepreneurial women-powered comedy. No, this film is not typical of what we expect from the film festival fare, but the message rang out: We heard every sound element and expletive, loud and, most importantly, clear.

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