The National Theatre has launched smart caption glasses for the hearing impaired, displaying subtitles during productions. Accenture, Epson’s Moverio BT-350 glasses, and Action on Hearing Loss UK assisted with the project. 

The glasses display a transcript of the production, live updated as the performance goes on. The technology senses at what point the play is at, then flash the relevant subtitles on the lens.

Earlier today I tried out the glasses in a 15-minute excerpt of Exit the King. The smart caption glasses sit comfortably, and displays hovering text. The subtitles also come with who is talking, select stage directions, and sound effects. There was a slight bit of lag, as the technology recognises what part of the play it was currently on. Overall, my views are very positive; it is a revolutionary piece of kit which will really help those in need. Users can rent the smart caption glasses at the National Theatre.

smart caption glasses national theatre

Smart caption glasses for plays

During the Q&A afterwards, Lisa Burger, Executive Director at the National Theatre, highlighted that the glasses are part of the company’s drive to improve accessibility. The Director looks forward to their wider use, ‘not only at the NT, but in the entertainment industry more widely.’

What is really interesting as well was Dave Finch, a key member of the testing group. Having reached early retirement, he was suddenly struck by hearing loss and, driven by his experiences, sought to help others with the same impairment. Dave found it difficult to describe fully their innovative impact.

After making some light-hearted jokes about speaking to an all-journalist theatre, Dave went into more detail: ‘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.’

smart caption glasses national theatre

Using the National Theatre’s smart caption glasses for good

The smart caption glasses apply directly to using AR for good causes. Hearing loss is becoming more and more commonplace. Action on Hearing Loss UK estimates that around 1 in 6 people have hearing loss in the United Kingdom, rising to 1 in 5 by 2035. Therefore the NT recognises the progression and sought to improve their accessibility in light of these statistics and their company strategy. 

The technology impressed as well. Experts from Accenture Extended Reality worked to refine the smart glasses user interface, with around six months of testing. This was built using the Epson Moverio BT-350 smart glasses, developed specifically with arts and culture applications in mind. The smart caption glasses could, in theory, be used with any performance. Further, the Accenture representative noted that the glasses have been tested with more improvised gigs as well. 

The next stage of testing will take place in 2019, in partnership with Leeds Playhouse, as a step towards making the technology available in theatres across the UK.

Overall my views are very positive. The glasses are functional, the text is clear, and I can see its applications being very useful. I can see the smart caption glasses being used at the National Theatre for years to come.

Tom Ffiske
Twitter: @TomFfiske
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