NT and ATG to trial new technology for deaf audiences

Caption unit at Handbagged at the Tricycle Theatre. Photo: Jeremy Fowler
Caption unit at Handbagged at the Tricycle Theatre. Photo: Jeremy Fowler
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Ambassador Theatre Group and the National Theatre will be among the first organisations that will trial new technology, aimed at increasing access for deaf and hard of hearing audiences and providing more accurate automated captioning.

Stagetext, a charity that provides theatre captioning services, has won around £125,000 from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. The fund supports ideas that use digital technology to engage audiences in new ways.

It was awarded to Stagetext to fund the development of its CaptionCue project, which will develop a system that would no longer require a person to operate the captioning systems in theatres. Instead, CaptionCue will use voice recognition software to generate accurate automated captioning.

The NT and ATG will join English Touring Theatre in acting as development partners, offering spaces to allow the technology to be tested.

The project is led by Roger Graham, who hopes that the technology developed will expand the amount of shows available to deaf and hard of hearing people and improve the accuracy of automatic systems.

“The idea is to try and output the lines absolutely simultaneously to them being spoken so our client audience can get what is as close as possible to the experience that anyone else gets at the theatre. Right now, it’s quite hard to get that sort of sensitivity without a manual captioner there," Graham explained.

The project will spend the next twelve months developing software and experimenting with different output methods for audience members which include personal display devices, such as tablets, and even adapted glasses which project subtitles into the wearer’s eye line.

“We need to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. We can create beautiful captions that happen exactly on time, but if you’re spending 90% of the time looking at a tablet and not at the show it’s pointless”, Graham said.

“We have a win-win situation here. We will be testing and developing CaptionCue, so whatever happens this grant means that we can ensure that access provision is improved," he added.

The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts is a partnership between Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta.

Nesta’s director of creative economy programmes, Jon Kingsley, said: "CaptionCue promises to be truly transformative for arts performance organisations by dramatically reducing the cost of captioning - helping to engage not only those with hearing difficulties but also people for whom English is a second language."

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