Closed caption glasses: A new way to watch theater

The Royal National Theatre in London has developed smart subtitle glasses for the deaf that recognize spoken words and adapt to stage cues.
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One of the oldest art forms is embracing some of the newest technology. London’s National Theatre has made their performances more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing patrons with closed caption glasses using augmented reality.

The National Theatre’s Technical Director, Jonathan Suffolk, partnered with Epson and Accenture to create the Smart Caption Glasses that are now giving all audience members the freedom to enjoy performances the way they’re intended to be experienced.

The Technology Behind Closed Caption Glasses 

Smart Caption Glasses deliver closed captioning to theater patrons by means of AR that displays a synchronized transcript of dialogue, and a description of sounds from the production, directly onto the lenses.

This technology uses the transcripts of a performance paired with intelligent speech following software that’s able to recognize spoken words. It also recognizes details of the performance such as lighting, timing, and stage cues, to deliver dynamic captions that are accurate and in-sync with the performance. If an actor drops a line, the closed caption glasses won’t deliver it to the patron either.

The glasses project text, using high fidelity LED lights, which appear crisp and clear, even in the oddest of lighting conditions. In addition, the glasses are designed to be comfortable, easy to use, and customizable. They’re light-weight and easily adjusted to fit any person, even those who wear eyeglasses.

Patrons use a handheld device to remotely control the glasses. They’re able to select the placement, text color, background color, and size of the captions they see throughout the play. They can set closed captioning to scroll or appear in time with the performance. 

Closed Caption Glasses Make Theater More Accessible

Hearing loss affects one in six people in the U.K. That’s 11 million people. Before the development of Smart Caption Glasses in London’s National Theatre, hard of hearing and deaf theater goers had limited options.

Some would only sit in certain sections, close enough to the stage in order to hear the actors or read their lips. Others were left with no other option than to dart their eyes back and forth between the performance and an open captioning screen located on the side of the stage. As a result, many patrons missed out on both nuanced and major aspects of a show.

One National Theatre patron, Liam O’Dell, described a situation in which he ended up sitting further away from the stage than he wanted for a comedy performance. He thought he could get by, but he didn’t.

He wound up missing several jokes, while surrounded by a laughing crowd. It’s this type of experience that, O’Dell says, creates “that sense of isolation deaf people, like me, experience.”

Not only was the actual experience of attending a play severely hindered for the deaf and hard of hearing, but opportunities to attend were limited, too. Most theaters only offer a handful of accessible plays each season.

According to Suffolk, the National Theatre only offered two or three captioned performances per season, only about 5% of their schedule, before they had closed caption glasses.

Now that the theater offers Smart Caption Glasses, they’ve increased the number of scheduled performances that are accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing to 80%. While Suffolk admits that it’s not yet a perfect 100%, he’s proud of the improvements they’ve made using closed caption glasses at London Theatre.

While Smart Caption Glasses are allowing many patrons to experience the magic of theater for the first time, others who suffered hearing loss later in life are also getting to reclaim a favorite pastime.

With closed caption glasses, deaf and hard of hearing patrons enjoy greater flexibility in the performances they’re able to attend. They simply need to pick the date and time of a show they’d like to see, book a set of Smart Caption Glasses, and then sit anywhere in the theater without worrying whether the seat will detract from the experience. 

Theater Accessibility in the U.S.

If you were going to find closed captioning glasses anywhere in the United States, you’d expect to find them in the heart of theater, on Broadway. But in spite of the estimated 48 million Americans with some form of hearing loss, AR closed captioning glasses have not yet made the journey across the pond.

In an effort to make Broadway more accessible, the Broadway League and the Theater Development Fund partnered to create Theater Access New York City – a website designed to simplify the process of locating shows that meet a variety of accessibility needs, including those for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

While the website makes it easy to search and locate performances for which open captioning or assistive listening devices are available, American theaters have yet to offer a solution as effective as AR subtitle glasses.

Hopefully, theaters in the U.S. and around the world will soon take notice of the incredible advances closed caption glasses are making at the National Theatre in London, and adopt this new application of AR technology.

“Freedom of choice in terms of support, services, and access is invaluable,” said National Theatre patron Liam O’Dell. “They place you in an ordinary audience, and you can go and see a performance just like anyone else.”

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