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Prototype system from BBC R&D sets subtitles free


September 16, 2013

The colored circles indicate that all eyes are on the positioned subtitle created by a new system being tested at BBC R&D

The colored circles indicate that all eyes are on the positioned subtitle created by a new system being tested at BBC R&D

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When it comes to foreign language films and TV programs, purists usually argue that subtitles preserve the vocal performance of the original actors. But I have to admit to a general preference for dubbing, mainly because I don’t like taking my eyes off the actors for extended periods (but maybe that’s just because I’m a slow reader). Researchers at BBC Research & Development could sway me to the other camp with a new system that frees subtitles from the shackles that have traditionally kept them at the bottom of the screen.

The prototype system from BBC R&D; involves monitoring a group of people as they watch a program and using a Tobii eye tracker to record which area of the screen they are looking at and when. Using this information, the researchers then position the subtitles near to where most subjects' gaze fell.

Though the placement was done manually, the researchers are looking at ways to automate some of the process, through the use of facial tracking and identifying low contrast or out of focus areas. A human being could then come in to do a final pass to check the positioning. The team is also looking at ways to convey tone in the text, through the use of larger letters and the timing and position of the subtitles.

Senior R&D; Engineer Matthew Brooks told us that tests to date have provided mixed results, with test subjects overall taking slightly longer to find the subtitles when they don’t appear as expected at the bottom of the screen, but taking less time to read them when they do find them. He points out that the quality of subtitle positioning ranged from good to terrible, and that he hopes to ascertain where best to position subtitles in various instances from further analysis of the test results.

Brooks says feedback has also been mixed, with those who commonly use subtitles preferring the traditional placement, while those with little experience with subtitles tending to prefer the gaze-positioned subtitles, indicating they may take some getting used to.

Since such a system won’t be for everyone, Brooks is hoping that a new subtitling standard could be developed that would transmit position metadata along with the text and allow users to switch between the traditional bottom of the screen placement and the new gaze-tracking placement.

I did spend a few minutes watching a demonstration of the prototype system and have to admit preferring it to the traditional subtitle placement. Although I don’t generally watch a lot of subtitled programs, I did feel like my eyes weren’t drawn away from the onscreen action as much and that it was easier to keep one eye on the actors while still taking in the subtitles.

Source: BBC R&D;

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

This is an option that will only work when exactly one person, who happens to need subtitles, is watching the content. Throw in anyone else, and the subs will have to be at the bottom.

One of these days, I'm sure a Google Glass-like device will be able to link up with your TV and display the subtitles itself.


As a film buff, I'd much rather subtitles remain where they are, rather than swimming all over the screen just because I am watching the actors more than the subtitles. Those of us experienced in subtitled movie watching can easily flick to and from the text without missing too much.

I loathe dubbed films, because the voices often don't fit the character (and are often nothing like the actor's own voices). The main problem with subtitles is that they don't always reflect what the character is actually saying, and tend to miss out bits, and often lacks the 'rhythm' that the dialogue in a well-written, well-acted performance.


One of my favorite subtitle experiences was while watching the movie Night Watch (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0403358/)

Certain DVD (not blu-ray) releases in the US had subtitles integrated using special effects, so that they may show up or fade away in the scenery, and totally augmented the watching experience.

This gaze-positioned solution sounds fairly similar, just with less dazzle

Jonathan Langevin
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