Smart glasses stage new experiences for deaf theater fans

London's National Theatre is using augmented reality to make its performances more accessible for hard of hearing customers.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
Royal National Theatre, London, United Kingdom
Hoberman Collection

Trying to get tickets for a sell-out production at London's National Theatre is difficult enough at the best of times, but if you're hard of hearing, it's trickier still.

Not only must you book tickets for one of a small handful of "captioned" shows, but you must also try to secure the seats in the part of the auditorium that have the best view of the screen.

It's something the theater is hoping to change with the help of Epson's latest smart glasses. This week it launched a trial that will see deaf and hearing-impaired customers supplied with the eyewear, which displays subtitles in their field of vision wherever they're sitting.

"The problem we're aiming to solve is the lack of choice and the customer experience -- it's twofold," Jonathan Suffolk, the theater's technical director, said in an interview. The smart glass tech, he said, "gives customers the chance to come anytime they want, matinee or evening, and sit anywhere they want in any size theater."

The trial will run for a year with the support of tech consultancy Accenture and is part of the National's wider vision of ensuring theater access for all. The always-on service will run in all three of the organization's theaters, starting with the Dorfman this month, followed shortly by the Olivier and the Lyttelton. It will be supplemented by always-on audio description for visually impaired customers by April 2019.

The National Theatre's experiment marks yet another way augmented reality, or AR, is beginning to infiltrate everyday life. Unlike virtual reality, in which a headset envelops a viewer in a computer-generated world, AR acts as an intermediary, showing digitally rendered images -- think Pokemon Go critters or Snapchat filters -- over the real-life scene showing on your phone or a pair of geared-up glasses. Apple, Google, Microsoft and others are taking the plunge.

In contrast with VR headsets, Epson's augmented reality smart glasses are light and discreet enough to be comfortable throughout a performance, as I discovered while watching a short clip from sold-out show "Mosquitoes," featuring Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams. Wearers have the option of changing the positioning, size and color of the captions to suit their own preferences.

Epson's smart glasses will use augmented reality to show captions to theatergoers.

Epson's smart glasses will use augmented reality to show captions to theatergoers.

Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

The National Theatre already has the ability to set up caption screens, and it sets aside a block of seats with a view of them. But it struck me while I was watching the performance how frustrating it must be to have the captions fixed in one place, which demands that you look away from the on-stage action in order to read the text. Now, though, with Epson glasses keeping the subtitles well within my field of vision at all times, it was possible to move my head and eyes to follow every nuance of the actors' performances without having to sacrifice any opportunity to read the captions.

It was easy to see how this might dramatically alter someone's enjoyment of the show, but rather than taking a journalist's word for it, the National Theatre will be relying on its hard-of-hearing customers to tell them whether the system works for them.

Jenny Sealey, CEO and artistic director of the accessibility-focused Graeae Theatre Company, and a regular at the National, said that as someone who's hard of hearing, she's intrigued to try the glasses out.

"I attend captioned productions but find it frustrating because the captioning box is often positioned far away to the side of the stage, which, when you are watching a show on the Olivier stage, means you really do miss out on the action, or sometimes they are placed too high up, so it is uncomfortable to look at," she said. "There are also only one or two captioned shows per run, which gives me limited choice, which is deeply frustrating."

When the glasses are available for every performance, said Sealey, it will be "revolutionary."

The pilot is set to run for the next year, during which the theater will provide participant feedback to Epson to refine both the hardware and the software. "By October 2018 we'll be in a position to provide a really accurate, really robust system that's always on," said Suffolk.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

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