Action on Accessibility: The UKCA launches its Technology Challenge Funding

Grainne Peat updates CT on the innovation fund the UKCA has launched to help develop accessibility solutions that bring the full magic of the cinema to people with hearing loss.


In 10 October, the UK Cinema Association launched a pioneering challenge fund to help stimulate innovation in technology to allow people with hearing loss to have a more inclusive cinema experience. 


The initial aim was to cast the net wide, with significant efforts over the summer by the Association — in partnership with Action on Hearing Loss — to promote the Fund as widely possible both within and in particular outside of the industry. 


As a result, having received a promising number of responses from almost two dozen companies and individuals — including well-known industry operators — applicants were invited to a launch event held at Universal Pictures in London, to discuss further the current position and explore ways of delivering closed captions screenings in to cinemas.


The availability of subtitled screenings has long been an issue of contention. While subtitles are a vital solution for many who are deaf or hard of hearing, the general experience amongst cinema operators remains that ‘open captions’ — where subtitles appear on the screen for all to see — are found to be distracting and unappealing for the majority of customers, resulting in lower attendances for these screenings and thus limiting the viability of adopting such screenings more widely.


Subtitles get personal

The provision of ‘closed’ captioned subtitles — only visible to the individual on a personal device such as a screen or pair of specially adapted glasses — is seen to offer one way forward. For some time, the UKCA has been keen to support progress in finding a workable solution to this global issue by stimulating the market. The Fund is perhaps the first of its kind to bring together a range of professionals and partners as well as representatives from hard of hearing audiences to help support and steer potential solutions.


In order to advise as this work progresses, an expert panel has been assembled that brings together a range of professionals who can impart wisdom and advice across the wide range of requirements and considerations needed to ensure the best possible outcomes.


In partnership with Action on Hearing Loss, the UKCA has also formed a focus group of regular cinema-goers who are profoundly deaf or have a degree of hearing loss. Their candid feedback and recommendations throughout the process will be hugely important to its success. 


In the UK, 11 million people — or one in six — is thought to have some degree of hearing loss, By 2035, it is estimated that this will rise to 15.6 million people. Globally, it is estimated there are 466 million people with some degree of hearing loss. As such, the potential market for cinemas is certainly significant and not one to be ignored.


Whilst there is a finite UK market for any new technology created through the Fund, the challenge is genuinely a worldwide one. Whilst assistive technology is in use in some international markets, none of the systems currently available is seen fully to meet the needs of the industry and hearing-impaired customers.


The development of a viable, inclusive closed captioning solution will not only serve the deaf and hard of hearing community, but could easily have read-across to the provision of foreign languages — a similarly vast and currently under-realised market. There also is certainly cross-over into other sectors such as theatre and museums, which face similar challenges and considerations.


Keeping the cinema in mind

The UKCA is keen to ensure that any solution submitted is one that is economically and operationally viable for cinemas. At the time of writing, applicants are in the process of submitting development papers for further funding. The expert panel and focus group is scheduled to meet as CT goes to press in late November to select five projects to be funded for phase one of the Fund.


The UKCA has seen a good mix of possible solutions that look to approach the problem from different angles. For example, the development and increasing use of speech to text technology is one area being explored. Making this compatible with cinema standards and technology and delivery within the cinema environment are amongst the key hurdles. Commonly, specially adapted eyewear or some form of secondary screen is also seen as a potential delivery mechanism for closed captions (and some models based on both approaches already exist). Again applications for improved models of these types of devices have been submitted.


There are clearly still a lot of discussions to be had and ideas to be mulled over, but the launch of the Fund is a big milestone, and one that brings together innovation and collaboration to help grow audiences and better serve disabled customers. In the next issue, the UKCA will announce further details of the ideas selected for development funding.


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Questions relating to the Fund should be directed to