On 3 October, the National Theatre launched their smart caption glasses and the AMA were invited to the special launch event to get a taste of this ground-breaking technology.
At the AMA we are passionate about access to arts and culture. We provide online workshops on subtitling, with trainers from Stagetext and at AMA conference we ensure that at the very least our Keynote sessions are live subtitled. Having seen this in action, and also having a small amount of video captioning experience, I am aware of the amount of preparation and time it takes to subtitle a performance, so I jumped at the chance to see how these glasses work.
As I walked into the Olivier theatre, I was handed a pair of the glasses, so I could go through the tutorial before the event began. The glasses were much smaller than I had anticipated and were linked to a touch pad, so the user can control the glasses’ settings.
The first truly impressive thing was that the text display, through the use of the touch pad, was completely customisable. The text size, colour, orientation and background display are all adaptable to suit the needs of the wearer. They were also surprisingly comfy, if it a bit heavy and they do fit over regular glasses.
The event began with a short excerpt from Exit the King, starring Rhys Ifans and Indria Varma. As someone who does not need subtitles, it took a while for my eyes to adjust between watching what was on stage and reading the subtitles provided by the glasses but I appreciated that this meant you did not miss a second of action from the stage, as you would having to look to the side to read a screen. In fact, once my eyes had adjusted I almost forgot I was wearing the glasses and was able to enjoy the performance.
The 15-minute excerpt was followed by a panel discussion led by Radio 4’s Samira Ahmed, and featured Lisa Burger Executive Director at the National Theatre, Jonathan Suffolk Technical Director of the National Theatre, George Marcotte Managing Director of Accenture Digital and Dave Finch who was a key member of the testing group.
The panel discussed the process of creating the glasses, explained how the technology actively listens to the phonetic sounds from the stage and their hopes for the future of the project that include audio description and translation. However, it was the comments from Dave Finch that truly made me understand just what sort of impact these glasses will have for someone suffering from hearing loss.
Firstly, Dave explained how mentally exhausting it is to not have perfect hearing — that all he hears is a mish-mash of sounds that he must actively filter to pick out what he wants to hear and that whilst traditional captioning is helpful, it means that he cannot truly immerse himself in the production.
To him, the fact that you can focus forward on the stage is a major advancement that helps his enjoyment of the production. In his own words, the glasses are “tremendous” as they lay out everything deaf people need, right in front of them.
The National Theatre currently have 90 pairs of glasses available, which are free to use but must be pre-booked and they will be available for ANY performance at the National Theatre with the release of their new season later this month. They will also be available at 5 venues during the touring production of Macbeth and in 2019 the National Theatre will be partnering with Leeds Playhouse as a first step towards making this technology available in theatres across the UK.
I am thoroughly impressed by the technology and the work that has gone into this project from a number of organisations. The amazing thing is that this is the first public iteration of this technology, which means that it can only be improved and expanded upon. I truly hope that it is something other venues will be able to utilise in the future, as these glasses will open the world of art and culture to a wide audience that can be excluded through no fault of their own.
Featured image courtesy of the National Theatre © James Bellorini Photography
All other images courtesy of Jemma Green