How the National Theatre is using Smart Caption Glasses to make theatre more accessible

October 31, 2018

One of the biggest priorities at the National Theatre is opening up our work to everyone. We try to do this in many ways, from touring productions around the country, to ensuring ticket prices are not prohibitive and that there is wide appeal across our programme. However, one area in which I was aware we hadn’t made as much progress as we could, was our provision for audience members with hearing loss. Whilst we are very proud to provide captioned performances (where transcripts of the show dialogue and sound effects are displayed on screens either side of the stage), these are limited to just two or three performances during the run of a show. Given that Action on Hearing Loss UK estimates that there are currently 11 million –around 1 in 6 – people with hearing loss in the UK, with this figure expected to rise to 1 in 5 people by 2035, we realised that we must find a way to broaden our service, and to provide audiences with more freedom and choice around when and how they visit the theatre, coming with their family and friends on a date which suits them and sitting in any seat in the auditorium.

To develop the smart caption glasses, our technical departments collaborated with Professor Andrew Lambourne, a speech-following expert, to create Open Access Smart Capture, an automated software which ‘listens’ to the actors voices onstage, and follows the sound, video and lighting cues from a show to track exactly where in a script a show is. We then collaborated with Accenture, the NT’s Partner for Innovation, to build the mechanism for delivering the captions to a set of smart glasses designed and manufactured by Epson. As the software ‘listens’, the lines from the script are broadcast over Wi-Fi automatically onto the lenses of glasses. The captions which appear on the glasses are fully customisable in size, colour and placement on the lens for optimum personal experience, and the glasses can also be worn over the top of your own spectacles and are fully adjustable.  Audience members can read the text and watch the actors simultaneously no longer needing to turn their head to the side to read the captions. 

This innovative and first-of-its-kind collaboration has resulted in an extraordinary piece of technology, which has now undergone a year of testing, only made possible by our wonderful group of service users and StageText-trained captioners. The result has now been launched at the NT, meaning anyone with hearing loss can book a pair of the glasses together with their ticket, and then attend any performance here at our South Bank home. We’re also looking forward to exploring how this technology can be used more widely and applied in other ways; from implementation in different theatre venues and on tour across the UK, to whether the software can be developed further to facilitate British Sign Language provision or foreign language services.

Lisa Burger, Executive Director of the National Theatre

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