There are 342 million people in the world who live in places where the language that they speak is not the dominant language. That doesn’t prevent a person from participating in society, of course. But it does make going to the movies less fun.
That’s something that Olenka Polak—a 20-year-old Harvard dropout and co-founder, along with her brother Adam, of the app myLingo, is determined to fix.
"We came up with the idea for myLingo in the summer of 2012 after we took our cousins, who were visiting from Poland, to a movie near our house in Connecticut that, of course, was playing in English," Polak recalls. "They came out of the theater, and they didn’t really like the movie. We were surprised—it was Hugo, and Hugo is awesome. But they complained about their movie-going experience, frustrated by the fact that they didn’t understand the context of the movie at all."
Inspired by this, Polak and her brother set out to create an app that would allow anyone to watch a movie in any theater in the world in whatever language they preferred.
The way it works is actually fairly simple. Major studio pictures have language tracks that already play in theaters where appropriate: If you go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier in Paris, Cap and his friends are going to be speaking en francais. What myLingo does is allow anyone sitting in a theater to listen to that version of the language track on their headphones, by opening the app.
It’s a remarkable creation, fulfilling a simple need efficiently and elegantly by using technology that most moviegoers already have in their pocket. And Polak says that because of the technology they use, the experience is seamless.
"What’s coming through the headphones is exactly what’s coming through the speakers when the movie plays in, let’s say Mexico," she says. "It’s the full surround-sound, dialogue, and FX tracks. There’s no a-synchrony that disturbs the experience, because the FX track of the English audio and that of the Spanish audio is exactly the same—and our technology perfectly synchronizes the two together, so as you’re hearing the explosion through the headphones, it’s the bass and the rumble of the theater that complements that in the earphones—because it’s the same sound."
The technology that allows the audio tracks to sync perfectly is decidedly simple, as well—myLingo is innovative, but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of the technology that powers the app. It’s built on the same sort of acoustic fingerprinting and audio synchronization that powers apps like Shazam and services like Echo Nest.
"Our app tags the movie, and it starts the audio track to play at the same exact time," Polak explains. "It reads it as three minutes and three seconds, and it starts Spanish at three minutes and three seconds, down to the thousandth-of-a-second, in perfect synchrony, just like Shazam tags a song and lets you know that it’s Lady Gaga playing."
Polak’s reference to the Spanish-language audio playing the same as it does in Mexico isn’t an accident, either. MyLINGO officially launches March 28, and the first film it launches with is Pantelion Films’ Cesar Chavez, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Pena, America Ferrara, Rosario Dawson, and John Malkovich.
Launching with Cesar Chavez makes a fair amount of sense, too. The film was made in English, but the story of the Mexican-American labor rights organizer who founded the United Farm Workers has an obvious appeal to Mexican-Americans of all ages—including many who may not speak fluent English.
In communities where a population of Spanish-speaking audience members exist, the film will frequently screen in both English and Spanish—but, as Polak learned when she took her cousins to see Hugo, that prevents intergenerational families, where older members may speak Spanish while younger ones speak English, from sharing the experience.
"We decided to approach Pantelion Films [the studio behind Cesar Chavez) because they’re the Latino movie studio associated with the highest-grossing foreign language film ever released in the U.S., [last year’s] Instructions Not Included," Polak says. "We got in touch knowing that the film was going to be in English, and they thought that it was a great opportunity for them—they thought it was a great idea and they said, ‘You know what? We welcome you to soft launch with Cesar Chavez.’ So abuela or tia—they’re not stuck at home, and they can go watch this incredible biopic about the civil rights leader."
Cesar Chavez is the first film myLINGO is working with, but Polak has big plans for the future. Movie studios aren’t notorious for being early-adopters of new technology that allows audiences to self-determine their experience, though, which also presents some challenges—and talking to Polak, it seems as though she’s encountered some frustration on that side of the business. When I ask her how the studios have reacted, for example, she launches into what sounds like a polished sales pitch, reciting numbers off the top of her head.
"First of all, myLingo very much benefits the movie industry, right? At $8.30—the average movie ticket price right now—if we were to open the platform internationally, having all of these language-displaced individuals, who either permanently or temporarily reside in a country where the native language is not their own preferred language, and if they were to go to four movies per year—which is the worldwide average right now—this would increase the annual box office revenue by roughly $3.4 billion, or an overall increase of 10% for the annual world box office of $34.7 billion."
Those aren’t statistics that a person can recall without a cheat-sheet in front of her unless she’s cited them over and over again—presumably to studios who are both interested and slow-moving. Still, she sounds optimistic that the industry is perking its ears up at the sound of a 10% spike in ticket sales.
"This is really moving the needle for Hollywood in a way that benefits them—they understand that this is a service for them to put more butts in seats," she says. "Even though Hollywood is notoriously known as a slow-moving industry that’s not quick to adapt to innovation, it’s really time to open up the market for movie-goers."
That makes Cesar Chavez an important test-run for the app—both from the perspective of "will audiences use it?" and "is the technology effective and secure?" Polak, for her part, recognizes that, too.
"We’ve been working on this since 2012, and we are just this week releasing with our first picture," she says. "That’s just really vetting our technology, proving ourselves, and letting the studios know that, ‘Hey, your content is secure with us. We will take care of customer support for you guys.’"
If that works, the potential for myLINGO is legitimately significant. Being able to go to the movies in a foreign country may seem like a small thing, but for countless immigrants, asylum-seekers, and homesick world travelers, being able to enjoy the simple comfort of the cinema can be incredibly important. And for families—like the ones that will be seeing Cesar Chavez this weekend, and like Polak’s own—the chance to share a communal movie-going experience is part of why we have movie theaters in the first place.
"This wasn’t just our cousins’ problem, this was also my family’s problem—my parents don’t speak English too well," Polak explains. "We grew up in a Polish-speaking household, and our desire to enjoy group trips to the movie theater was really complicated by our parents’ language barriers, which prevented us from going as a family."
If only someone had thought to make an app that might fix that.