How AR smartglasses are helping those with hearing loss enjoy theater again

The National Theater in London is offering real-time subtitles through Epson brand smartglasses.

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Augmented reality (AR) made a big foray into the world of stage acting Wednesday, when the National Theater in London introduced smartglasses that provide real-time subtitles for hearing-impaired audience members. As detailed in a New York Times report, the glasses can be used freely by audience members of the shows War Horse and Hadestown.

The "smart caption glasses" will show the dialogue as the actors say it, allowing the users to keep their eyes on the stage, the report said. Off-stage monitors or dialogue cards can be distracting for some users and are less immersive.

The glasses' hardware comes from Epson, and looks to be part of its Moverio line. To get the full product correct, though, took roughly two years, Jonathan Suffolk, the theater's technical director, told the New York Times.

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Another option that Suffolk said the theater had considered was having the lines displayed on audience members' phones. But, that seemed too distracting. And using tools like pre-programmed lines wouldn't work because it would be too difficult to match the speed of the actors' speech.

The software, the report said, is able to follow along with the speech live and sends the words to the glasses via Wi-Fi. It can also understand lighting changes and will alter the placement of the subtitles for optimal viewing. The biggest challenge was to make sure the software was able to grok the words when multiple people were speaking, the report said.

The glasses cost roughly $1,050 per pair, and the theater bought 50. They'll be available throughout the 2019 season, and the National Theater will also make them available at other venues, according to the report.

Eventually, the glasses may be used for real-time language translation or other purposes, Suffolk told the Times. However, Victoria Dietrich, a spokeswoman for the Berlin State Opera, told the Times that the glasses would obstruct the audience view and could be a hindrance to taking in the full performance. Either way, they're an interesting application of AR in the real world, and could set the stage--so to speak-- for future uses of the technology in the arts.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • The National Theater in London has ordered smartglasses that provide real-time subtitles to patrons with limited hearing.
  • The National Theater's subtitled smartglasses program is an interesting use of AR in the real world and could expand to provide translation and more.

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Image: Epson