An augmented reality solution from the National Theatre looks promising in the delivery of closed caption subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. The UKCA updates readers on progress.
REGULAR READERS OF Cinema Technology will hopefully recall an earlier update on the Technology Challenge Fund, launched by the UK Cinema Association back in October 2018. The purpose was to find an affordable and inclusive solution for the delivery of ‘closed caption’ subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing people.
The background to the Technology Challenge Fund is the fact that there are an estimated 11million people with hearing loss across the UK — around one in six of the population — a figure which is expected to rise to one in five — or almost 16 million people — by the year 2035.
While over the past decade the UK cinema sector has worked hard to meet the needs of its deaf and hearing-impaired audiences — with there now being more than 1,500 subtitled screenings in UK cinemas every week — the delivery of such ‘open caption’ shows, where the subtitles are visible to audience members whether they need them or not, remains a challenge, particularly for smaller cinema operators.
The general reluctance of the wider audience to attend subtitled screenings means that attendance at these open caption shows tend to be significantly lower than for a comparable non-subtitled screening, with a consequent financial impact for the operator. It’s a somewhat negative spiral for those cinemas trying to do the right thing.
The Technology Fund was established to explore new ways of delivering ‘closed caption” screenings only to those who need them, but potentially for all cinema screenings. This would massively widen the range of films available to deaf customers, and extend greatly their ability to enjoy the big screen experience with friends and family.
At the UKCA, we are now at a stage where, by a process of investigation and consideration, we have reduced the 15 initial proposals originally received following the launch of the Fund down to two preferred options, each of which has been awarded a second (and final) phase of funding. While both of these rely on some form of eyewear to reveal the subtitles to individual users, they offer somewhat different solutions to the problem, as outlined below.
A look at the options proposed
The proposal from the research agency ScreenLanguage — based in Scotland — is currently at a more conceptual phase than the second of our proposals, and it utilises the potential offered by polarised light to display subtitles on a secondary screen when viewed through glasses such as those currently utilised for ‘passive’ 3D systems.
The better-developed solution, and therefore the more promising at this stage, is that offered by a team at the National Theatre (NT), who have developed a set of specially adapted ‘smart caption’ glasses. These were launched by the NT in 2018 following a year of testing with audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing. These smart caption glasses are now in use for 80% of the NT productions at the South Bank theatres in London.
In technological terms, the NT’s glasses display a synchronised transcript of dialogue and sound directly onto the lenses of the glasses, giving service users the freedom to experience captions how and when they want to. NT developed the service in conjunction with Accenture’s Extended Reality Group using an existing ‘off-the-shelf’ glasses model designed and manufactured by Epson with arts and culture applications specifically in mind.
With successful testing and configuration of the system to the cinema environment now well underway, in January, the BFI London Short Film Festival hosted the first UK pilot of the glasses for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Thirty devices were made available for audiences to book and use across a significant number of the festival’s performances.
It was a hugely exciting milestone in the progress of Fund and will provide us with a much better understanding of the operational practicalities of the devices for cinemas, as well as valuable feedback from users. All being well, our next step will then be a wider ‘real-life’ trial of the technology across a range of mainstream cinemas, something on which we will of course keep readers of Cinema Technology updated.