How National Theatre is making performance accessible with smart tech

We spoke with Tech4Good award winner National Theatre about how they’re using tech to bring the magic of the stage to people with hearing impairment.

Chloe Green | 30th Jul 19
Image shows people using smart caption glasses at the National Theatre Image credit: National Theatre (nationalthreatre.org.uk)

There are an estimated 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing impairment – one in six people. And we’re a country of threatre-goers, with almost 22 million people a year enjoying live performances in London alone. That is why National Theatre has been working to help make threatre performances enjoyable for everyone.

Its groundbreaking new service just won the The Inclusive Design Award at the 2019 Tech4Good awards.

Developed with commercial partner Accenture and Leeds Beckett University’s Professor Andrew Lambourne, from the School of Computing and Creative Technologies and Engineering, the Smart Caption Glasses – a revolutionary way for people with hearing loss to enjoy performances with dialogue and a description of the sound from a performance displayed on the lenses of the glasses.

The system “listens” to what is being said or sung on stage and live text is sent to glasses via Wi-Fi.

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Jonathan Suffolk, Concept Designer & Project Director at the National Theatre, had begun to explore the idea of bringing new, better ways of open captioning to performances back in 2013. He began looking at smart glasses from Sony being used in the Regal cinema chain in the US. At the same time, he looked at speech-following software being developed by Professor Andrew Lambourne and with help from charity Stagetext.

His ambition was to bring the two pieces of technology together.

“We pitched the idea to Accenture,” says Suffolk, “working very closely on them about the parameters on how it had to function, and worked to create an app inside the glasses and a method of broadcast.”

“The proof of concept came about in August 2017,  which kicked off a test year to evolve the systems, working very closely with Andrew Lambourne, Accenture and Epson – the glasses manufacturer we eventually chose. From November last year started working on the glasses, first for War Horse, then Hades Town, then from April this year started to use the glasses in all three theatres.”

 

Reigniting a passion for the arts

National Theatre is now able to offer live captioning on 800 performances, with around 1,000 users. Of those, around 10% are entirely new to the National Theatre.

“Anyone can now walk in off the street and buy a ticket and come and see the show,” says Suffolk. “For someone death or hard of hearing, that’s something previously couldn’t just do. They’d have to wait for a special open caption performance.”

“The most impactful feedback we’ve had is people coming back to the threatre after 30 years – people who have gone deaf coming back to enjoy the performing art medium they love. We’ve had five or six people write in to say this is amazing, I haven’t been for years.”

“What we’re really keen to do now is to get it out in as many other theatres as possible – it’s great to have choice again but it’s better to have a much broader choice.”

As well as people with hearing loss, other theatre-goers are using the glasses to help with their comprehension if English is not their first language.

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The ambition is to eventually have the technology available to every theatre in the UK. Funding from UK Innovate as part of its ‘audience of the future’ project will enable them to enhance the technology even further, integrating audio description into the service as well as integrating sign language, and a multi-lingual translation package.

Suffolk says: “The thing about using tech to solve problems is, you don’t stop when you solve the problem – you keep working on refining and improving. Tech, particularly for people who need access services, tends to stagnate and it goes through a cycle of years where there’s no development. Something like the Tech4good award is really useful in saying to potential funders ‘this is a good piece of work done for people, it has great benefit, and now we know we could do more’.”