As well as my museum volunteering I also volunteer on the access user group at the Globe Theatre. We don’t get to the theatre that often but as a family we have benefitted greatly from their relaxed family performances.
I am always interested in visiting and writing about the very best in accessible theatre because it has the power to become truly transformative for many marginalised groups. I think there is much to be shared cross culturally, museums can also take much from the latest technological advances and vice versa.
In 2017 I visited and wrote about the Almeida and their under 25 festival, in particular their audio-described performance of Hamlet for blind and visually impaired audiences which included a touch tour of the stage and props before the show.
You may have noticed theatres promoting audio described, British Sign Language, captioned and relaxed performances. But often there may only be one or two of these special performances for each show run. Last week I got to try out some new tech at the National Theatre in London which I believe will revolutionise how audiences with hearing impairment access the theatre.
Smart Caption Glasses allow users to see a transcript of the dialogue and descriptions of the sound from a performance displayed on the lenses of the glasses. Launched in October 2018 the glasses are a culmination of 4 years of work and testing by the National Theatre (NT) technical team and speech and language experts led by Professor Andrew Lambourne. The glasses were developed with support from Accenture and they are designed and manufactured by Epson.
The technology is custom built using voice following software to track where the show is in the script which is transmitted using Wi-Fi to the glasses. It means they can be used at any performance in any of the NT’s three theatres, in any seats and they are free to use.
With 11 million currently living with hearing loss in the UK, which works out at 1 in 6 people, the need is obviously apparent.1 Predictions are that by 2035 there will be 15.6 million with hearing loss which is 1 in 5 people in the UK. I have elderly relations who struggle with their hearing and what you quickly realise is how isolating it can be. Finding it hard to follow conversations, dropping out of the moment. You can easily see how the thought of spending money to see a show you can barely hear would be a waste of money.
There is a fantastic quote by David Finch, member of the NT’s testing group –
“For someone hard of hearing [the glasses] literally represent the difference between being able to go to the theatre whenever you choose and staying away.”
The NT recommend you turn up around 30 minutes before the performance so you can pick up your glasses and adjust the settings. I am going to see the musical Hadestown which tells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice where Orpheus journeys to the underworld to rescue his fiancée Eurydice. It is set in the Great Depression with a jazz, blues, folk feel.
The glasses are easily adjustable and since I already wear glasses they can sit on top. I am often wary of wearing glasses over glasses, having not enjoyed a 3D cinematic experience, but these sit over my glasses fine. I try them without my glasses on and actually think it works better over my glasses as it supports them.
NT staff explain how the control unit works, it sits on a lanyard around my neck. You only need to use the bottom half of the unit, it works like a computer track pad where you move your finger along the surface to move the cursor on the lens and tap to click and select.
I was impressed as there are lots of adjustments you can do to make the experience right for you. The friendly NT staff member helping me suggested 3 lines of rolling text will probably work best as it is a musical, but you can also select a single line of text. The menu offers lots of choice: you can change the colour, size, brightness and, perhaps most crucially, position of the text on the screen. I experiment moving it around to see where it suits me best. You can change these settings at any time and since the menu is on your lenses you are not having to use any external screen or interrupt anyone by fiddling with an ipad. There are no lights on the control unit so you can make changes without bothering anyone around you.
You do obviously notice you are wearing glasses but unsurprisingly once the performance starts you begin to forget they are there. The technology is so clever, perfectly in time with the songs and singing. It doesn’t run ahead or behind of the flow. Through the whole two hours and 30 minute performance I think there were only 2 tiny glitches where two lines overlay each other but it is such a small moment it doesn’t spoil the experience.
If I was going to be critical the glasses are a touch on the heavy side which didn’t bother me until the very end of the performance. I think it is difficult though as I was actively thinking about them a lot in order to review them. If I had any other negative comments it is that the menu disappears quite quickly so if you are not great with understanding how a trackpad works you may struggle with that element of the tech, but I would imagine this is a setting that can be changed.
The technology is really amazing to keep up with the flow of the musical. I also love the extra information that indicates the different styles of music when jazz, folk or blues rhythms are woven into the narrative. It even tells you how long you have for the interval.
To be honest I don’t think they will work for everyone, but in reality that is not the point. For the NT it is about a layered, considered, well thought out approach. The Smart Caption Glasses are about choice and the freedom to experience theatre how you want to experience it. The NT will still be running captioned performances but these glasses open up the opportunities to visit. You are not restricted to one or two performances. Traditional Captioned performances display the text above or to the side of the stage. With these glasses you look directly at the action and decide for yourself where you want the text to appear.
The development and process has not been cheap for the NT, a Financial Times article states –
“To start, the theatre has ordered 90 sets of glasses, paying around £599 each for 50 and receiving the rest at no cost from Epson, the manufacturer. Accenture and Epson provided most of the development services for free, according to the National Theatre, which said “hardly any” investment was required above staff costs. “2
Currently they will probably be too expensive for many theatres, but you really feel this is the birth of technology that will no doubt get cheaper and lighter as times goes on. The NT are looking ahead to work on some of their other live experiences including director talks and workshops.
This is life changing technology for those with hearing loss. It is hard to explain when there are barriers to theatre and live performance how important the work of the NT is.
There was not a free seat in the theatre and the audience was enthralled in a beautiful performance by the Hadestown cast. The glasses are so deceptively clever if you think about how they are able to keep up with the speech and singing. I have to applaud the hours and hours of work and research that has gone into them.
Don’t forget the hire of the glasses is free, bookable via the website when you have bought your tickets. There is a YouTube instruction video (see below) and I highly recommend giving them a go, you have absolutely nothing to lose from trying them out.
You can find out more about the National Theatre Smart Caption Glasses by visiting their website – https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/your-visit/access/caption-glasses
YouTube instruction video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hdtf4qUWos4
Hadestown – National Theatre – https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hadestown
1 – Action on Hearing Loss, Our research and evidence – https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/about-us/our-research-and-evidence/facts-and-figures/
2 – London’s National Theatre introduces smartglasses for audiences, Aliya Ram, 3 October , 2018. Financial Times – https://www.ft.com/content/268018f0-c717-11e8-ba8f-ee390057b8c9