The National Theatre today has launched smart caption glasses, which will transform access to theatre for audiences with hearing loss. This ground-breaking new service has been developed with the NT’s Partner for Innovation, Accenture.
Audience members will be able to view captions at any performance in all three of the NT theatres, seated in any seat, thanks to revolutionary Open Access Smart Capture technology, the result of an ongoing collaboration between the NT’s technical team and speech and language experts led by Professor Andrew Lambourne.
The glasses display a synchronised transcript of dialogue and sound from the production directly onto the lenses of the glasses, giving service users the freedom to experience performances how and when they want to. Accenture and the NT developed the service using glasses designed and manufactured by Hemel Hempstead Business Ambassador Epson.
Following a year of testing with audiences who are D/deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, the smart caption glasses are now available for productions at the National Theatre. They are bookable from today for Hadestown and War Horse and from later this month for all shows in the NT’s new season.
Action on Hearing Loss UK estimates that there are currently 11 million – around 1 in 6 – people with hearing loss in the UK. Further, by 2035, they estimate this figure will rise to around 15.6 million people, or approximately 1 in 5. Given this anticipated increase, the NT felt it needed expand and enhance its service options for people with hearing loss. To date, live captioned performances have been limited to selected performances at the NT, with up to four per production.
The Technical Department at the National Theatre, led by Jonathan Suffolk, collaborated with Professor Andrew Lambourne, a renowned expert in live-subtitling who provided expertise, guidance and access to specialists, to develop the Open Access Smart Capture technology. The technology utilises custom-built voice-following software to track precisely where the show is in the script, with further guidance from the lighting, sound and video cues unique to the production.
Experts from the Accenture Extended Reality group, together with the NT, worked to continuously refine the smart glasses user interface, improving the experience throughout a year of rigorous testing. Accenture used its extensive experience in ‘extended reality’ to help fine tune the interface and the patron experience. As a result, the smart caption glasses revolutionise the captioning experience, meaning individuals now have the choice to attend whichever performance they wish to.
The Epson Moverio BT-350 smart glasses, developed specifically with arts and culture applications in mind, enable the NT to deliver an ‘always on’ live captioning service. The glasses were chosen by the NT and Accenture due to their ease-of-use, durability and accessibility. The captions are displayed on the lenses of the glasses, with the typeface size, colour and position customisable to the personal preferences of the user.
The NT worked with Stagetext-trained captioners and a group of audience members with hearing loss, benefitting from their advice and feedback at all stages of the process. Throughout 2018, accuracy has increased and the aim is to reach over 95% for all productions, as the service is implemented on upcoming shows. Further, the software will be developed so that the glasses can be used for live captioning, providing an additional access option for a range of events beyond the NT’s productions; from in-depth talks with theatre directors and actors, to drama workshops for young performers and families.
The next stage of testing will take place in 2019, when, with the continuing support of Epson, the NT will partner with Leeds Playhouse, as a first step towards helping to make this technology available in theatres across the UK. The service will be available on their 2019 pop-up season productions of Hamlet, Around the World in 80 Days and Be My Baby. The NT will also test the glasses during the UK and Ireland tour of Rufus Norris’ production of Macbeth in January; at venues including the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Hull New Theatre; the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; and Glasgow Theatre Royal.
The smart caption glasses will form part of the NT’s access service provision – the theatre also provides Stagetext open captioned performances, audio described performance and pre-show touch tours, BSL-signed and relaxed performances, as well as large print and braille cast lists, an infra-red audio loop system in all theatres, plus headsets and neck loops.
Dave Finch, a key member of the testing group, who is hard of hearing, said: “Whilst trialling these glasses during the various tests over the past year, the one thing that has struck me is that it’s almost impossible to describe their impact to a “normal” hearing person. For someone hard of hearing they literally represent the difference between being able to go to the theatre whenever you choose and staying away. Quite a lot of deaf people don’t realise what is out there to help them or haven’t even contemplated that an evening at the theatre is possible, but these glasses represent a fantastic step forward.”
Lisa Burger, Executive Director at the National Theatre, said: “The NT is continually improving how our audiences access our work. The development of the smart caption glasses is an important step towards giving people a better service, with the freedom and choice around when and how they come to the theatre, and I look forward to seeing the impact the glasses will have, not only at the NT, but in the entertainment industry more widely. This collaboration with our Partner for Innovation, Accenture, is demonstrative of the vital dialogue which must take place between the arts, technology and digital sectors to ensure we continue to broaden our services, everyone should feel that theatre is something they can access and enjoy.”
Valerie Riffaud-Cangelosi, New Market Development Manager, Epson, said: “Augmented reality is fast coming of age, with many applications now moving from proof of concept to mainstream implementation. Our work with the NT is a wonderful example; showing how smart glasses can assist people who are hard of hearing, making theatre more accessible, and is one of many useful applications across a diverse range of sectors from retail, healthcare and education to repair & maintenance, entertainment, museums and visitor attractions.”