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Case study: How AR is improving accessibility for theatregoers

by Nicola Macdonald

Electronics company Epson on collaborating with the National Theatre using augmented reality to improve the experience for those who are hard of hearing.

Founded in 1963, the Royal National Theatre is one of the UK’s most prominent performing arts venues, presenting new writing, classics, comedies and musicals. It is located on the South Bank, Central London, and is responsible for smash hit productions such as ‘War Horse’, ‘One Man’ and ‘Two Guvnors’.

The venue presents over 20 productions every year and has an annual turnover of approximately £105 million, of which 58 per cent is made up from ticket sales.

Despite funding cuts over the last few years, theatre continues to thrive and innovate in the UK. With over 14 million attendees walking through the doors of London’s West End every year, live drama and music clearly still pulls in a crowd.

Hearing-impaired theatre fans neglected

However, for those who are hard of hearing or deaf, being a theatre lover can prove difficult when theatres aren’t equipped to accommodate this disability, and, as such, many miss out on the shows that London has to offer.

The National Theatre used to provide captions at some of its performances on the side of the stage, but at only four of these per production run, they were very limited. This solution also made it difficult for hearing-impaired theatregoers to view the actors’ performances, as they needed to move their line of sight back and forth between the actors and the screens at the side of the stage. They may have also been forced to sit in certain areas to ensure they have a close view of the captions themselves.

Not satisfied with this caption offering, the National Theatre reviewed the options available and looked to new technologies being used in the arts to reach more people and widen the diversity and range of both its audience and its performers – including smart glasses that offer personalised, accurate captioning for each and every viewer.

The National Theatre, along with its partner for innovation, Accenture, is now collaborating with Epson to enable better access to theatre for those with hearing loss. Having rolled out Epson’s Moverio BT-350 AR smart glasses in a successful trial during October 2018, the glasses will be available to book for any performance in all three National Theatre venues from January 2019.

Opening up the theatre to all

The Moverio BT-350 AR smart glasses – designed specifically for cultural and entertainment venues – have been combined with a software application developed by the National Theatre, Accenture and Stagetext to allow deaf and hearing-impaired customers to read subtitles in their field of vision from any seat in the auditorium.

At the heart of this advanced system is technology that aims to achieve over 95 per cent accuracy of the timing of the captions and descriptions, which is particularly vital for theatrical performances that include regular back-and-forth dialogue. The technology utilises custom-built, voice-following, software to track precisely where the show is in the script, with further guidance from the lighting, sound and video cues unique to the production.

The National Theatre’s technical director, Jonathon Suffolk, explained: “It is important that all users have a seamless experience, including those who are hard of hearing. We’re committed to giving our entire audience the best experience that we are able to deliver and that includes people who are hearing impaired. Moverio smart glasses allows us to deliver a theatre trip that can be enjoyed by all – which is why we have paired with Epson on this initiative.”

Just the ticket

The Moverio BT-350 AR smart glasses are the latest in Epson’s line of technological products that use the power of augmented reality to transform everyday experiences that are often taken for granted, in this setting enhancing the entertainment experience for those with hearing impairments.

The Si-OLED-powered glasses feature a binocular see-through display that projects a large transparent image centring in the field of view of the user, easy on the eyes and comfortable to see. The user is not cut from the scene and what they came to see; rather they will enjoy a more accessible and exciting experience.

In true augmented reality fashion, the glasses will always maintain the subtitles well within the wearer’s field of vision at all times, allowing them to easily follow the actors’ performances whilst simultaneously reading the captions. The high-definition and bright display offers a sharp image, enabling the captions to be read easily – whilst unused displays will disappear, allowing the captions to seamlessly merge with the real world.

The device is also lightweight and compact, unobtrusive and comfortable enough to be worn throughout an entire performance, with users being able to change the positioning, size and colour of the captions to suit their own preferences in the National Theatre’s application. In addition, they can be adjusted to fit the head size of any visitor – plus can be worn over prescription glasses, with the nose pad ensuring a perfect fit. They are durable and can support intensive daily use from commercial applications and will thus keep providing an unforgettable user experience performance after performance.

Act Two of implementation

Augmented reality is fast coming of age, as many organisations are now moving from proof of concept to mainstream implementation. The National Theatre believes the glasses will be beneficial to 11 million potential customers, based on figures from Action on Hearing Loss showing that one in five people will be affected by an audio disability by 2035.

“We’re really pleased with how our collaboration with Epson has kicked off. We have had positive feedback from wearers of the Moverio glasses so far and we are delighted that we are able to offer our hard-of-hearing theatre lovers a better experience,” Suffolk added.

The next stage of testing will take place in 2019 when, with the continued support of Epson, the National Theatre will partner with Leeds Playhouse as a first step to make this technology available in theatres across the UK. The National Theatre will also test the glasses at venues including the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Hull New Theatre; the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; and Glasgow Theatre Royal.

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