The Cinema Subtitling Challenge

In January 2020, the London Short Film Festival hosted the first-ever UK pilot in cinemas of the National Theatre’s smart caption glasses.

It was part of an initiative launched by Action on Hearing Loss and the UK Cinema Association (UKCA).  This started from the pioneering UKCA’s Technology Challenge Fund.

In October 2018, a fund was launched with an ‘invitation to apply.’ Over a dozen participants accepted the challenge of coming up with a range of potential solutions.


Why is this necessary?


Deaf people cannot currently enjoy the experience of the big screen or stage due to lack of access.  Hearing audiences have commented that adjustments are distracting.  The ideal is a solution that would work alongside a hearing audience, so that neither audience impacts on the other.
This has been an ongoing dilemma for both film and theatre lovers AND venues for a long time.

Back in 2019, we wrote an article on our experience of how hard it can be for deaf people to access films with subtitles.  We reported that it could often take weeks for a subtitled screening to be made available.  In most cases, this will take place a long while after the launch of a film and only in selected venues.

The solution also needed to be easy for both the venue and the user and be financially viable for venues to install and use.
It must also be compatible with existing cinema infrastructure. Quite a challenge, then!

But it does appear that significant strides are taking place.


Could this be the solution?


This was launched in 2018 by the National Theatre.  This followed a year of testing with deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.  Smart caption glasses have already been in use for 80% of their productions on the South Bank.

The glasses were piloted ‘live’ for the first time in January.  They work by using sound and a transcript of the dialogue directly onto the lenses.  This gives the wearers the option to use either of the options or a combination depending on their individual needs.  The service was developed by Accenture and the NT using Moverio BT-350 smart glasses (Epsom designed and manufactured the glasses).

In a press statement, UK Cinema Association Chief Executive Phil Clapp said:

It’s hugely exciting to have reached this milestone in the progress of our Technology Challenge Fund.  The first genuinely live in-cinema of the National Theatre’s subtitling glasses solution.  Our aim all along has been to help develop technology which can overcome many of the barriers of the current ‘open caption’ approach.  And make the cinema experience more accessible and inclusive for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

We will continue to take an interest in developments and are intrigued to find out how the pilot went. If you were lucky enough to attend, please do let us know, and we can feature you in our next update.


Watch this space!