National Theatre Smart Caption Glasses

Finalist category: Inclusive Design Award 2019


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Finalist, Inclusive Design Award, Winner, 2019

The National Theatre’s Smart Caption Glasses system is an automated, always-on closed captioning service which pairs speech-following technology with smart glasses allowing patrons with hearing loss to attend any performance on any day. The system “listens” to what is being said or sung on stage and text is sent to glasses via Wi-Fi.

The National Theatre is proud of its access services, but open captioning is only available at three or four performances per production – limiting audience choice, especially for those living outside London.  They have continued to explore automated captioning, which has led to the development of a completed system which is now live in their three theatres on the South Bank. The service has increased accessible captioned performances from 5 to 80%.

Existing open captioning can be limiting for a number of reasons; it is not a truly immersive experience with users having to look away from the stage to read the captions; the service is only available on a limited proportion of performances, and captioning screens can be distracting to other audience members and performers. The provision of captioning services has remained largely unchanged since around 2005. Following development of speech-following software in 2014, and the emergence of Augmented Reality technologies, the team are bringing these two technologies together to offer an automated ‘always-on’ closed captioning system, providing a more immersive and equitable experience.

This is the first time that always-on captioning in the arts has been available in the UK, and it has huge potential to be rolled out in other theatres and settings including cinemas, museums, music venues and arenas. Further potential applications of the speech-following technology including using the audio from the stage to trigger audio description, BSL interpretation and foreign language translations.

A year-long user trial at the NT began in October 2017, and during nine productions the team worked with their registered open caption users, StageText’s users, Action on Hearing Loss and The Deaf Children’s Society, to test and refine the system. Aiming to achieve 97% captioning accuracy and 90% user satisfaction, they were encouraged by increasingly positive responses after first test performances. The user group has a complex set of diverse requirements and they took their feedback very seriously. As the test evolved, it became clearer that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to captioning and they needed to understand that d/Deaf and hard of hearing audiences had fought hard to get open captioning and were reluctant to give it up. Rather than offering an alternative, for now, closed captioning – whilst it offers significantly more choice and the opportunity to impulse buy a ticket – is a new addition to a multi-layered approach to the NT’s Access services. It will remain so until technology is sufficiently advanced that they don’t need to.

This technology has been transformative for d/Deaf and hard of hearing theatregoers. The service offers real choice and as close to an equitable experience with hearing audiences as it has ever been possible to achieve.

Some of the feedback received;

“It is a mind blowing realisation that we can now attend any mainstream performance at the National without being tied to special Access performances at limited times.”

Earlier this year, for the first time ever, every performance at the National Theatre had closed captioning available.

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