National's smart caption glasses a leap forward for accessibility
There is huge potential for the National's new glasses, which were launched this week
This week, following a press conference at the National Theatre, journalists were given a demonstration of a groundbreaking piece of technology.
Smart caption glasses were first unveiled by the National a few years ago during the development stage, but now they are preparing the roll them out to audiences. Styled something like the old Google glasses, they enable the wearer to read captions while watching a show.
On Wednesday we trialled them with a scene from Exit The King, and the results were impressive. Although as a glasses wearer it took me a while to adjust to the sensation of wearing two pairs, once I did I was able to watch the scene and read the dialogue with ease.
Dave Finch, who is hard of hearing and has been involved in testing the glasses, emphasised the extent to which they will improve his theatregoing. "Without these glasses I wouldn't be in the theatre," he told us, "I'd be sitting at home wondering what I was missing."
There is no doubt this technology marks a huge step forward for accessibility. And, as the National's executive director Lisa Burger highlighted, there is huge potential for other uses, including translation and live captioning of improvised events. It could also mark a step closer to the incorporation of augmented reality into live productions.
But the fundamental difference they make is that those who are hard of hearing will no longer need to rely on captioned performances. They can attend any performance. And more than that, as Dave movingly said, they also make for a far move immersive experience for the hearing-impaired. No more craning heads away from the stage to the caption screen; with these glasses, the focus is always on the action.
The National is starting by offering 90 pairs of glasses across its three theatres from 2019. They will need to be booked in advance, but are completely free to use.
The drawback is that, due to costs, it's unlikely that many other venues will be able to stock them anytime soon. But as with any technological innovation, costs will inevitably come down over time. I wonder too if a user could one day take ownership of a pair rather than relying on the theatre to provide one; this could open up a whole range of live events beyond just theatre.
But whatever the future developments may be, for now let's celebrate a breakthrough moment, and commend the people and organisations - the National has been backed by Accenture and Epson in developing the glasses - who made it possible.