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Lifting the Curtain on Augmented Reality

What is the best solution to make theatre performances fully accessible to the hearing impaired? This issue was posed to National Theatre, one of UK’s most prominent performing arts venues, in their efforts to reach more people and widen the diversity of its audience.

Founded in 1963, the National Theatre (NT) is located on the south bank in central London. It presents new writing, classics, comedies and musicals, and over 20 productions every year with an annual turnover of approximately £105 million. With over fourteen million attendees walking through the doors of London’s West End every year, live drama and music clearly still pulls in a crowd.

 

Hearing-impaired theatre fans neglected

However, for those who are hard of hearing or D/deaf, being a theatre lover can prove difficult when theatres aren’t equipped to accommodate, and, as such, many miss out on the shows that London has to offer.

The NT provides captions at some of its performances displayed on LED screens at the side of the stage, but with only four of these per production run, their occurrence is limited.

This solution also made it difficult for hearing-impaired theatregoers to view the actors’ performances, as they needed to move their line of sight back and forth between the actors and the screens at the side of the stage. They also needed to sit in certain areas of the auditorium to ensure they have a close view of the captions.

Not satisfied with this caption offering, NT reviewed the options available and looked to new technologies to address this issue.

The solution they found was smart caption glasses, the Epson’s Moverio BT-350 smart glasses which supports applications that offer personalised, accurate captioning for each and every viewer.

 After a successful trial in October 2018, these glasses are now available to book for any performance in all three National Theatre stages.

 

Opening up the theatre to all  

The Moverio BT-350 smart glasses have been combined with a software application developed by the National Theatre, Accenture and Stagetext to enable deaf and hard of hearing customers to read subtitles in their field of vision from any seat in the auditorium.

At the heart of this advanced system is technology that aims to achieve over 95% accuracy of the timing of the captions and descriptions, which is vital for theatrical performances that include regular back-and-forth dialogue.

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.

NT’s Technical Director Jonathon Suffolk, explained: “It is important that all users have a seamless experience, including those who are hard of hearing. We’re committed to giving our entire audience the best experience that we are able to deliver, and that includes people who are hard of hearing. Moverio smart glasses allows us to deliver a theatre trip that can be enjoyed by all – which is why we have paired with Epson on this initiative.”

 

Just the ticket – The Moverio BT-350

The Moverio BT-350 smart glasses are Si-OLED-powered glasses that feature a binocular see-through display, projecting a large transparent image centring in the field of view of the user.

In true augmented reality fashion, the glasses will always maintain the subtitles well within the wearer’s field of vision at all times, allowing them to easily follow the actors’ performances whilst simultaneously reading the captions.

The high definition and bright display offer a sharp image, enabling the captions to be read easily – whilst unused displays will disappear, allowing the captions to seamlessly merge with the real world.

The device is also lightweight and compact, unobtrusive and comfortable enough to be worn throughout an entire performance, with users being able to change the positioning, size and colour of the captions to suit their own preferences in the application.

In addition, they can be adjusted to fit the head size of any visitor – plus can be worn over prescription glasses, with the nose pad ensuring a perfect fit. They are durable and can support intensive daily use from commercial applications and will thus provide an unforgettable user experience, performance after performance.

 

Act Two of implementation

The NT believes the glasses will be beneficial to 11 million potential customers, based on figures from Action on Hearing Loss showing that one in five people will be affected by hearing loss by 2035.

The next stage of testing will take place in 2019 when, with the continued support of Epson, the NT will partner with Leeds Playhouse as a first step to make this technology available in theatres across the UK. The NT will also test the glasses at venues including the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Hull New Theatre; the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; and Glasgow Theatre Royal.

The NT is already receiving excellent feedback from audience members who are using the glasses. Chris, watched a production at the NT and responded: “My wife and I have both just returned from a hugely enjoyable performance experienced with captioned glasses. We are both deaf and this is the first time we have tried this form of captioning.”

He added, “We found the captioned glasses, with the ability to position the text, change the colour and follow the action directly made a huge difference to our enjoyment of the show. It is a mind-blowing realisation that we can now attend any mainstream performance at the National Theatre without being tied to special access performances at limited times. This is a huge benefit and we look forward to coming to many more performances.”

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