Earlier this year, 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), using funds from the pioneering UKCA’s Technology Challenge Fund.

The Fund was launched in October 2018, with an ‘invitation to apply.’ And the challenge was accepted by over a dozen applicants with a range of potential solutions.

The piloted Open Access Smart Capture technology is an ongoing collaboration between the NT’s technical team and speech and language experts led by Professor Andrew Lambourne.

Why is this necessary?

Developing a solution that would enable deaf film (and theatre) lovers to enjoy the experience of the big screen or stage performances, alongside a hearing audience; with neither audience impacting on the other; has been an ongoing dilemma for both film and theatre lovers AND venues for a long time.

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

The additional criteria of the challenge were that the solution should be easy for both the venue and the user. And be financially viable for venues to install and use. Plus, it must 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?

Launched in 2018 by the National Theatre, following 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 piloted ‘live’ for the first time in January use 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!