I was at the National Theatre last night to witness a new era of technology. Not some new wizardry on stage or even backstage, but right in the audience. Several people sat around me wearing rather futuristic, oversized specs. These were the new Smart Caption Glasses, designed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, which debuted very recently.
The National Theatre has always been ambitious in finding new ways to help audiences enjoy theatre, for example the broadcast to cinemas of plays from NTLive – now ten years old, which have brought the best theatre to millions across the country and around the world.
Now, the National’s ambition to make theatre more accessible for everyone takes another step forward with Smart Caption Glasses. They work by projecting the captioned speech onto the inside of the lenses for hard of hearing and deaf patrons to read. As I understand it, the captions are placed to appear within the scene, close to where the actor is speaking.
Until now, these patrons have had to content themselves with one or two specifically captioned performances where the equipment has to be set up, loaded, synced and run, and the script is relayed line by line through caption boards at either side of the stage. These boards have been a lifeline for many people to be able to enjoy theatre. But, if people could not attend those very few performances, they had to miss out. A crazy situation which negatively impacted many people’s ability to experience the arts; because the arts weren’t listening to them!
Four years in the technology development, Smart Caption Glasses are now available at the National Theatre, and can be booked when you book your tickets. You collect them from a member of Front of House staff and the specs are flexible enough to comfortably fit over your existing specs (if you wear any).
It was really good to see how the Front of House team were helping the users come to grips with the glasses; as always the staff were kind, patient and friendly, and the surrounding audience members were definitely intrigued! The users themselves seemed very happy at having been given the confidence of support in this new technology, and were fully engaged with the production. By coincidence the performance I was attending was a captioned one, but it may be that the new glasses will make these a thing of the past!
Well done, the National! How terrific that deaf and hard of hearing audience members can now attend any performance at the National and enjoy the fruits of this digital revolution. Now that’s real inclusivity! The next hope must be that all theatres might be able to adopt -or adapt- this technology to serve their own audiences and grow their appeal to their own, local audiences.
Read more about Smart Caption Glasses on the National Theatre website here
There is an interesting item about the Glasses on the BBC Radio 4 You and Yours programme of 13 March, which for a limited time you can access here (item is 18’05 minutes in until 26’25)